Today was a good day for bad science. A plethora of health-related science stories hit the newsstands. Amongst other extraordinary assertions, we were advised:
i) that watching television while surfing the internet and checking social media on smart phones may alter the brain and trigger emotional problems,
ii) that babies conceived less than a year after the birth of a sibling are more likely to be autistic,
iii) that looking at a picture of an ex and talking about break-ups can be as painful as burning your arm (so a psychologist advises taking painkillers instead).
The story about multitasking with mobile phones and TVs came from a study by a team at the University of Sussex’s Sackler Centre for Consciousness. They scanned the brains of 75 volunteers and questioned them about their use of mobile phones, computers as well as television and print media. The researchers found that an area of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) was smaller in those who used the most electronic devices simultaneously. Well removed from the attention-grabbing headline was the researchers’ admission that people with smaller ACCs may be predisposed to use more media devices!
The story about autism warned parents to avoid having children too close together, after a study found that babies conceived within 12 months of the birth of a sibling were more likely to be autistic. Closer reading of the article reveals that a gap of more than five years also increases the risk. Even closer reading makes it clear that many researchers actually believe that autism and Asperger’s syndrome may have been over-diagnosed and the problem may not be as widespread as feared!
As for the break-up story, it seems that Professor Walter Mischel of Columbia University believes that the psychological pain of ending a relationship is similar to physical pain and should be treated like any other injury. Closer scrutiny reveals that Mischel simulated the emotional pain of a relationship break-up by getting volunteers to play Cyberball, a virtual-reality game of catch from which they were eventually socially excluded! Does that sound like empirical science to you?
These half-baked pseudoscientific meanderings are ridiculous and misleading. The trouble is, to the undiscerning reader they are also potentially dangerous.