April 23, 2005

Quit email, get smarter?

There's a lot of buzz about a new study that (allegedly) shows that email lowers IQ more than pot.

"This is a very real and widespread phenomenon," said Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist from King's College, London University, who carried out 80 clinical trials for TNS research, commissioned by the IT firm Hewlett Packard. The average IQ loss was measured at 10 points, more than double the four point mean fall found in studies of cannabis users.

Now, I have a lot of sympathy for Don Knuth's attitude about email. As far as I'm concerned, it's usually somewhere between a necessary evil and a major distraction -- and the fact that I sometimes enjoy it just makes things worse.

However, I'm pretty skeptical about the cited study. I can't be very exact about my skepticism, because I haven't been able to find out any details about the experiments. As far as I can tell, nothing has been published so far. Perhaps nothing ever will be published -- this is a privately commissioned study described in a press release, with some quotes from the author in the resulting popular-press articles.

The MSM articles are mostly as careless as usual: the Times indicates that "Eighty volunteers took part in clinical trials on IQ deterioration and 1,100 adults were interviewed", though it doesn't tell us anything about how the IQ experiments were designed; most of the other articles I've seen, such as the Bloomberg wire story, were worse, saying things like "the study of 1,000 adults found their intelligence declined as tasks were interrupted by incoming e-mails and texts. The average reduction of 10 IQ points, though temporary, is more than double the four-point loss associated with smoking cannabis. A 10-point drop is also associated with missing a night of sleep."

I certainly don't expect newspaper stories to be like scientific journal articles, but couldn't they give us one or two sentences about how the IQ study was actually carried out? I'm not just being a fuss-budget here. Think about it. Were the subjects people whose work and social lives normally require email? If so, were they in effect being compared in normal life and on vacation? Or if they were not normally users of email, were they being tested while trying to master a new set of skills such as typing and computer use? If the study was done in a lab setting with concocted emails to read and answer, what was the control activity? Or were subjects simply tested before and after a day of intensive email interaction? Was it even a within-subjects design, with the same subjects tested with and without email and similar distractions, or did the study compare the effects of a day at work on subjects who used email and text messaging vs. subjects who didn't? Without answers to questions like these, I'm not convinced that such a study necessarily tested the things attributed to it at all. (And some answers might well convince me that the study definitely didn't test what is claimed for it.)

The author of the IQ portion of the study is this Glenn Wilson, said to be an expert in "Personality; sexual behaviour; male-female differences; social behaviour; performing arts psychology; fame and celebrity". He's previously written an apparently controversial popular book called The Great Sex Divide; another apparently controversial book called The Psychology of Conservatism; found (surprisingly large if true) differences in startle responses based on sex and sexual orientation; examined the role of hormones in the physiology of "love junkies"; and studied the psychological benefits of bubble baths.

None of the links in the previous paragraph fill me with confidence that Wilson's experimental design can be trusted to have avoided the many obvious confounding factors, or that the popular-press summaries mention any caveats required by its design or its results.

I can certainly believe that mental distraction and/or fatigue temporarily decreases problem-solving ability. But I wonder how the effect of a given period of time reading email compares with the effects of spending the same amount of time in other sorts of potentially distracting or fatiguing mental activities, such as reading novels, doing mathematics, praying or writing poetry. All of these sometimes seem to leave people somewhat dazed. I can see the headlines now: "Science Fiction lowers IQ more than pot does".

You could even look to see whether different sorts of distracting activity affect performance on different neurocognitive tasks differently. But I forgot: Dr. Wilson is an expert on "fame and celebrity".

This seems to be another case where the press is happy to publicize a plausible alarmist result of wide interest, without any hint of the sort of aggressive skepticism that they are famous for applying to the pronouncements of politicians. Is this because there are no journalists who are smart enough and well enough educated to ask the obvious questions? Or is it a matter of high-level editorial policy? Most likely, I guess, it's a combination of laziness and lack of editorial attention.

(More MSM coverage here, here, here, here, here and here.)

[Update 9/25/2005: for the truth about the experimental design, and an apology for blaming the media's excesses on Glen Wilson, see this post.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 23, 2005 02:16 PM