September 25, 2005

An apology

I guess I owe Glenn Wilson an apology.

Last April and May, there was a media avalanche about how email, texting and other communications technologies "are a greater threat to IQ and concentration than taking cannabis" (according to the Guardian), "lower the IQ more than twice as much as smoking marijuana" (according to the London Times), "reduce productivity and leave people feeling tired and lethargic" (according to CNN), have effects "similar to the impact of missing an entire night’s sleep" (Red Herring), "temporarily knocks 10 points off a users' intelligence, compared to four for a joint" (the Mirror). The associated headlines were things like Why texting harms your IQ; E-mails 'hurt IQ more than pot'; Distractions at work 'lower the IQ of staff'; and TXTING MKS U STPID: It lowers your IQ more than smoking cannabis. This research has become part of the public's conventional wisdom about the deleterious effects of modern life, as suggested by browsing the 615,000 Google hits for {"email IQ pot"} and similar probes.

The scientific authority most often quoted was Dr. Glenn Wilson, a psychologist at King's College London. I was critical of the media coverage, which was long on hype and short on detail, and my attempts to understand and evaluate the research itself were frustrated by the fact that no description of the experiments' design and results had been published, and no publication was planned, because the work was privately commissioned by HP. So I wrote a series of increasingly skeptical and increasingly jocular posts: Quit email, get smarter? (4/23/2005), A tale of two media (4/30/2005), Never mind (5/03/2005), News flash: the effect of politics, athletics and sex on IQ (5/03/2005). In doing so, I violated my own principle: when reasoning about some piece of reportage that doesn't make sense, it's a good rule of thumb to blame the journalist -- or the journalistic process, including the editor(s) and the headline writer -- before blaming the scientist. The fact that Wilson was misidentified as a psychiatrist in many of the early stories (presumably because he works at an institute of psychiatry) should have been a clue, if one were needed, that most of the rest of the stories' content was bogus as well.

A few days ago, a friend of Wilson's stumbled on these posts of mine, and sent a note in defense of his friend. Since his defense didn't address my questions about the research -- basically "what was the experimental design?" -- I responded with a brief account of what those questions were, and why I thought they were relevant. He responded with a copy to Wilson, who in turn wrote:

This "infomania study" has been the bane of my life. I was hired by H-P for one day to advise on a PR project and had no anticipation of the extent to which it (and my responsibility for it) would get over-hyped in the media.

There were two parts to their "research" (1) a Gallup-type survey of around 1000 people who admitted mis-using their technology in various ways (e.g. answering e-mails and phone calls while in meetings with other people), and (2) a small in-house experiment with 8 subjects (within-S design) showing that their problem solving ability (on matrices type problems) was seriously impaired by incoming e-mails (flashing on their computer screen) and their own mobile phone ringing intermittently (both of which they were instructed to ignore) by comparison with a quiet control condition. This, as you say, is a temporary distraction effect - not a permanent loss of IQ. The equivalences with smoking pot and losing sleep were made by others, against my counsel, and 8 Ss somehow became "80 clinical trials".

Since then, I've been asked these same questions about 20 times per day and it is driving me bonkers.

Since I sent a couple of emails to Dr. Wilson back in April, which I'm sure were lost in the media feeding frenzy, I hereby apologize for my small contribution to the barrage of questions. I also apologize for tarring Wilson to some extent with responsibility for the excesses of the media. I'll also link to this from the earlier posts, including the one that shows up on the first page of Google returns for queries like {email IQ pot}.

There's a bigger problem here: rotten science journalism. For a rational catalog of horrible examples, read Ben Goldacre's recent article "Don't dumb me down" from his Bad Science column in the Guardian ("Ben Goldacre on why writing Bad Science has increased his suspicion of the media by, ooh, a lot of per cents"). I don't think that we can do much about media sensationalism or the scientific ignorance of many journalists. On the other hand , there's no reason why better information about science and technology should not also be available to the public.

Several of the themes that we bark incessantly about here on Language Log come together here, especially Open Access scientific publishing, which allows the public to read the original work, and encouraging more science writing in informal public forums, including weblogs, because "if there were an order of magnitude more science writing in blogs, there'd be less than an order of magnitude more crap, and more than an order of magnitude more good stuff".

But there's one thing that we don't bark about enough. When a piece of scientific research comes to the attention of the media, those who know it best should make available a simple account of what the research is and what it means (or doesn't mean). If misinterpretations become rampant -- which is just another way of saying, if there's widespread media interest -- then it's in everyone's interest for the authors to address the misrepresentations directly. This clarifies things for the more sensible fractions of the public and the media. And it should also help reduce the "bonkers" factor, since even reporters often use web search before they start making phone calls and sending emails, and if they don't, you can still send them off to read your "what my research is and is not" page instead of repeating the same explanations again and again.

In this case, Dr. Wilson's page at King's College London Institute of Psychiatry ("Last updated by Dr Glenn D Wilson on Monday, October 04, 2004 2:00:58 PM") could have a link to a paragraph (or a longer essay) setting the record straight, as he's done in the email quoted above. If that solution is viewed as inappropriate for some reason, there are many other low-impact ways to make such an explanation available to the public.

This page is one of them. So please accept my apologies, Glenn -- and here's hoping that the Guardian, The Times, CNN, the newswires, and so on will chime in too.

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 25, 2005 12:46 PM