My Twitter encounter with Susan Greenfield on Channel 4 News

I appeared on Channel 4 News on Friday, debating the value of Twitter with Baroness Susan Greenfield. The starting point for the discussion was a comment from one of Twitter’s founders, Biz Stone, who told a conference in Canada that excessive use of the social networking site “sounds unhealthy”.

In The Geek Manifesto, I argue that Twitter (and other social networking sites) have proved hugely valuable in bringing together groups of people who care about science, allowing them to campaign on issues such as libel reform, research funding, and science advice to government.

Susan, as you probably know, takes a different view. To her, computer culture in general, and Twitter in particular, is threatening to rewire our brains — perhaps even heralding “a world without physical relationships”.

As others, such as Dorothy Bishop and Ben Goldacre, have pointed out, Susan has never actually published any data that might support this bold claim. She’s never even, so far as I can tell, advanced a clear hypothesis that someone else might plausibly research.

I called her on this in the Channel 4 interview. She accused me of making an ad hominem argument.

I don’t know about you, but to me, asking a scientist to show us her data is the very antithesis of an ad hominem argument.

About markgfh

Mark Henderson is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health by supporting the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Geek Manifesto contains his personal views, not those of the Wellcome Trust. Before joining the Trust in January 2012, Mark was Science Editor of The Times, where he built a reputation as one of Britain's foremost science journalists and commentators. Mark's first book, 50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know, was published in 2009 by Quercus
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5 Responses to My Twitter encounter with Susan Greenfield on Channel 4 News

  1. Damocles says:

    Surely “excessive” use of anything is unhealthy? Isn’t that sort of what “excessive” means?

    Anyway, the good thing about Twitter (and online social networking generally) is that it brings together people who might not otherwise connect. The bad thing is that it brings together people who might not otherwise connect.

  2. Marianne says:

    Well done for not shouting at her, I would have done.

    A few points that stick out:
    1. What the hell is ‘the firewall of your brain and body’ supposed to mean, Susan?

    2. Twitter is a giant network of conversations, not the absence of them. With these ignorant claims about ‘not talking to people’, she’s reinforcing the fact that she has no idea what she’s talking about here.

    3. I have far more in-depth and long-term discussions online than irl, usually. For a number of reasons; people don’t talk over each other, you can re-read and make sense of comments in your own time, you can take time to say exactly what you want and what you mean, the conversation can be left and returned to whenever.

    4. It’s also been pointed out that she’s really showing off how cushy a life she has here if she can boast about spending loads of time outside (a lot of people are stuck inside, working, looking after dependents, that sort of thing, y’know) and in amazing company. What a sheltered view of what a human life can (and, according to her, should) be.

    I would descend to a bit of a tantrum state at this point and say, if you do not use the things you’re criticising, do not understand them and have made no attempt to, then (pardon my acronyms) stfu and gtfo, as we say on the Internet.

  3. I particularly agree with Marianne’s fourth point – I’m sure that a subset of people exist in such rich IRL environments that the value of online time is outweighted by the opportunity cost. Bell Labs, for example, has recently been featured as particularly rich in valuable interaction:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/26/opinion/sunday/innovation-and-the-bell-labs-miracle.html?pagewanted=all

    But the reason that these things are news is that they’re relatively rare! Clearly, personal interactions are richer, but the flexibility of online interaction makes it exceptionally powerful for niche intellectual discussions.

  4. Magnus Meyer says:

    Quite rich of her to accuse you of ad hominem, when first of all I didn’t hear the word “therefore” in the question, and secondly as she is clearly making an argument from authority. It doesn’t matter if someone with concerns about twitter is behind it all. You don’t need an understanding of psychology to create twitter. Creating twitter does not make you qualified to make a statement on the effects of twitter on the mind.

  5. Eurogene says:

    Oh boy… of course excessive is,,, excessive. So the co-founder of Twitter is worried, therefore… what? Therefore we should be afraid, warn people against it and discuss it? No we should research it – is there a problem? if there is, how big is it?

    “yes I’ve published peer reviewed work on the effect of the environment” – sounds like a 3rd rate effort to sell magic weight loss pills that are “proven” to work

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