Saturday, 14 March 2009

Bad argument

Not sure if I am getting the hang of this but I picked this up (admittedly late) from Damian tonight. Here Ben Goldacre of The Guardian's Bad Science is talking to Aric Sigman, about a claim, sort of made by Susan Greenfield, that social networking sites addle the infant brain.

I have no opinion on whether they do or not - there is so much competition in addling - but the argument is peculiar in that while the two gentlemen debate with passion via the blessed Paxman neither is saying diametrically the opposite of the other, though each seems to be claiming or assuming the other is. So Sigman is not exactly claiming that long-term exposure to such sites rewires a child's brain, or at least no more than hours of solitude in a room with TV would, he just has a hunch it might be bad for them, nor is Goldacre exactly claiming that it doesn't harm children just that you can't be certain that it does. Neither claims certainty. That does not seem a vast difference to me except as an example of 'package thinking', the kind of situation where one person thinks that if another thinks A he must think, B, C, D and E as well, the swine.

As it happens I'd probably trust Goldacre more than Sigman, but that's only by hunch. Fortunately I am not in a position where I would have to trust either with my life.

It often happens that arguments develop their own dynamics in a faintly addictive way, both parties sharpening the difference and playing down the common ground. I even understand the attraction of this. Disagreement is a way of testing a proposition. It's just that the dynamic then takes over from the proposition.

I expect it's a male preoccupation rather than a female one, at least conducted over the kind of issues Goldacre and Sigman are debating. It's amusing, it's creative and, occasionally, it leads to blows.


Background Artist said...

Another example of the me me me me generation, lead by middle aged egoists using any trick in the book to get their gobs on telly in the pursuit of fame for anything.

I have a theory, much like Sue's, in the respect of having no proof because I haven't carried out any research to garner evidence which supports it and it being based on instinct and imaginative belief.

However, using the a ha ! out of thin air logic Greenfield improvises in the clip, that if the world is changing then ergo brains are too - then there is an overwhelming case for the prosecution, which is this.

That it is better for kids to spend hours becoming addicted reading than the electronic sedatives of Barney and the Teletubbies, parentally administered as soon as they first draw breath, to shut 'em up so mum and dad can get on with their busy lives, stretching out the childhood into their fifties.

I am from the second generation of people who grew up with telly, and I think that this has ultimately proved to be a banalizing agent. The Italian flim director Matteo Garrone, who made Gomorra, a movie about the mafia in Naples, who was handed down an underworld fatwa for making a non glam movie aboiut the mob, has been under police protection for two years and in a recent interview, claimed that far from criminal behaviour in the mob life influencing films, it is the other way round, which I think is about right.

The gradual erosion of what tv could show has resulted in an free for in which the eff word is now celebrated and where a series about teenagers sex exploits, Skins, looks more like semi-hard Lolita porn than serious drama.

Maybe I am turning into a fogey, but the power of the image, maybe the web will counter that, as kids get used to communicating in print again.

I was in Chapters today buying books and it struck me that the foundation-stones of knowledge as we knew it pre-web, are becoming redundant. The grip of ancient Greece and Rome is waning, perhaps as we discover the massive mistakes the first know alls made, because we can now piece the bits of our ontological jigsaw together in ways impossible without what we have now.

Now we can draw in a huge sweep of info and in doing so, come to grasp how little we will ever know. Yet having access to every texts which pre-web would make us the largest library owner on the planet, means we can rise above the first and second dimensions of the frame and fit, so that the portraiture of what can be claimed as Truth, shifts up a gear and we apprehend a different pattern previously unseeable because, hey when you've only a thousand books to play with, the circumfrence of our understanding extends to a stricly defined reach. But when the information is unlimited, there is a quantum-perspective whereby knowledge becomes relative and a multiplicity of virtual realities whose maginitude of potenital to create a truth-to-sense ratio, is arrived at, perhaps?

I dunno, I am only writing this as part of a practice the online environment allows one to enact and is all I have ever known, as a 41 year old whose brain is at the stage of development academically, as that of a 27 year old - so a 14 year lag, the missing years and jidddery juddery jag of short-term attentive spans I am working on as part of the plan to become a master of flarf poetry, a relation of spam-perfomrance which is gonna be the next rock 'n roll, the new comedy and something I hope to blog about on Twitter, when I set up the account, after winning a race to succeed at saying nothing with grace. End on a chop.

Poet in Residence said...

My brain was rewired by Listen with Mother "Are you sitting comfortably? (10 second pause) Then I'll begin. Once upon a time a little boy lived in a room alone with his computer. His mummy and daddy lived in another room with their hairy dog and videos. The boy had many friends all over the world. But he had no real friends. No real live flesh and blood friends to hang around street corners with, to smash shop windows with, to spray graffiti with, to play football with, to go swimmming with and so on with. All he did all day was drink sugar-added chemicals and eat added-flavour potato crisps that had been fried to a crispy golden colour in transfat. The little boy, grew and grew, and ballooned into a diabetic chain-smoking monster. But then the good fairy came and said 'Enough!' and appointed Mrs Hamburg to look at what folks is eating round here and why folks is getting too fat and too unhealthy and what the real health issues are. Go get your brain re-wired if you like but please, please, do the rest of your body a favour and don't eat fresh-sealed flavour-added salt and sugar added junk while you're doing it. That's what the TV man should have said. Did you enjoy story? (pause 5 seconds) Good. Don't forget. There will be another one tomorrow.

Harry said...

Surely the point is that the director of the Royal Institution shouldn't be publicising her hand-wavy speculative hunches all over the media despite a complete lack of evidence to support them, because that's exactly the opposite of how science is supposed to work.

The fact that her hunch involves a health scare makes it particularly irresponsible, but again, the main thing is that anecdote, speculation and hunches are not science. It would be nice if the media would learn that, though I'm not going to hold my breath; Susan Greenfield, on the other hand, should be ashamed of herself.

Basically Goldacre does the same thing over and over again: look at some story reported in the media about science and ask whether it's supported by the evidence. Which doesn't seem like an outrageous question.

George S said...

Surely the point, Harry, is that in the interview Sigman and Goldacre were not arguing about what they were said to be arguing about. Sigman did not say that it had been proved that anything was happening, he just thought it was not unlikely. Goldacre did not say it was definitely not happening, he just thought it had not been proved. The rest was about Sigman's past track-record on other things that were not discussed.

That is my point at any rate. Want to argue about that, or about whether what Greenfield said was right or wrong? (I expect it was wrong.)

And, on a mere hunch level, I don't think it is particularly good that children should lock themselves away for hours on end eating crap, without live contact or exercise. Do you? And if so, why? Or rather, if not, why not?

Harry said...

I agree that the discussion was somewhat at cross-purposes, mainly I suspect because it was provoked by an article in the Daily Mail (How using Facebook could raise you risk of cancer) that Sigman didn't write and some comments from Greenfield that Sigman wasn't inclined to fully endorse, so Goldacre was left arguing with someone who wasn't quite agreeing with original claims anyway.

But as for this:

"I don't think it is particularly good that children should lock themselves away for hours on end eating crap, without live contact or exercise."

Well, no. But that is not controversial or new, and is not specifically linked to social networking unless you can find some evidence that Facebook is making children behave that way who would otherwise be playing outside with their friends and eating a balanced diet. I spent much of my childhood shut away in my room reading books. Other children might spend their time watching television or collecting stamps or building model train sets.

George S said...

Did I suggest it was controversial or new? That is the point of the post: that nothing actually said in the programme was controversial yet they tried to sound as though it was. As I say in the post 'there is so much competition in addling'.

Ideally they would have had Ben Goldacre talking to Greenfield and someone from The Daily Mail. That would have been more productive.

And of course I don't believe that Facebook has any particularly malign effect. It would not be Facebook, but the hours spent in front of the screen whatever the screen was showing that did the damage. That is if damage of some kind - psychological or physical - was actually done.

Personally I do suspect that a childhood stuck in rooms at computer screens, living a virtual life and eating rubbish is not particularly healthy. Nor do I need to prove anything about Facebook in particular to entertain such suspicions. (I myself am on the cancer-inducing Facebook, albeit in a minimally active-interventionist mode).

I expect we were both bookish children. Nevertheless, I did go out sometimes and occasionally talked to real flesh-and-blood people. Didn't you?