Sunday, December 5, 2010

Testing the Zeitgeist

Writing for the “Language Log,” Mark Liberman deconstructs the recent NYT article on the potential perils of “Growing up Digital.” He apparently wants to send out a general warning against the recent explosion of alarmist pop neuroscience since his post is titled “Your Brain on …?” Liberman thinks one of the main studies quoted in the NYT piece has methodological flaws, therefore the article provides no sound proof regarding the effects of video games and thrilling video material on kids’ brains. He warns against alarmist stories with “a high ratio of stereotype and anecdote to fact,” as opposed to “serious large-scale studies of causes and effects.” Each impressionistic account should be seen for what it truly is – just another case of “ritual inter-generational hand-wringing.” Like, you know, Socrates’s worries about the negative effects of writing, concerns about the printing press, or the telephone (Liberman quotes a NYT article from 1924 describing the telephone as that “most persistent and … most penetrating” aspect of “the jagged city and its machines,” which “go by fits, forever speeding and slackening and speeding again, so that there is no certainty”; with the benefit of hindsight, we can now see how totally, utterly baseless all such alarmist premonitions have been). The comments below Lieberman’s post mostly support his blasé attitude. True, one reader (a self-described scientist who knows all too well “that anecdotal evidence doesn't mean squat in science”) does sound some concern. In his view, sometimes a phenomenon may become so “prevalent that you don't need science to tell you of its existence, instead perhaps only of its severity, and even then, sometimes it takes a while for scientists to come up with a good way to empirically quantify these things.” This might just be the case now, of we take his own observations seriously: “I'm young, and I have experienced for myself how constant exposure to the internet and games have severely harmed my own ability to concentrate and focus on tasks for long periods at a time (meaning, any longer than half an hour). But moreover, all my friends are having the same problem.” Another reader, though, immediately counters these worries. Citing his own superhuman powers of concentration at age 58, after decades of gaming, he concludes: “Your anecdotal narrative is no more proof of anything than mine.” A more sympathetic young reader admits: “I … use the internet many hours most days, and have serious trouble with concentration, procrastination, discipline at work, and so on, and yes, many of my friends have similar problems.” But does he see any causal link here? Not necessarily. In his universe, “without a control group of friends who don’t use the internet so much, I don’t see how we can fairly put the blame on it!” I have the following hypothesis regarding the total reliance of such superintelligent researchers (most are male, thus the ubiquitous “he” above; but women are not immune to the syndrome) on clear-cut experimental proof and their intense scorn for “anecdotal narratives” (why would some call it “evidence,” really?). If the left hemisphere of your brain is overdeveloped (a requirement for – and partly the effect of – a successful scientific career these days), it will inhibit the more inchoate impulses generated by the right hemisphere. As a result, you will tend to focus on observable causal relationships among isolated “variables”; and you won’t be able to step back and sense some overall patterns. Liberman and his fellow-travelers will, of course, dismiss such a glib explanation as a groundless overgeneralization by someone who should have never been granted a Ph.D. in a social discipline. They will continue to study language, of all things, applying the one and only scientific method that can produce true knowledge; and to throw out the CVs of job applicants who show the slightest diversion from the scientific canon. More ominously, others will continue to apply the same mindset and methodology to the study of society, politics, the economy – and even the human psyche. And their predictions will never be proven wrong, no matter how severe the next crisis they miss may turn out to be. As Iain McGilchrist notes in “The Master and His Emissary,” one of the benefits of having a hypertrophied left hemisphere is immunity from self-doubt.