Journalese

There was a headline on Metro a few months back: “Video Games ‘linked to ADHD’” http://www.metro.co.uk/news/834425-video-games-are-linked-to-adhd It annoyed me at the time, and it’s stuck with me since.  This was one of those cases of a newspaper having a slow day and looking round for some really not very exciting study, then just highlighting it and making it seem important. Now I’ve not even read the study on which this was based, but even a cursory reading of the story makes for a fairly convincing case that the story is spurious to say the least.

“Children who play computer games or watch TV for more than two hours a day are up to twice as likely to suffer from attention problems linked to ADHD.” Thus the story starts, with already a fairly shaky case “up to twice as likely to…” and problems “linked to ADHD”. Not exactly twice as likely to, nor are the problems actually ADHD, but still it sounds quite scary “children…computer games…twice as likely…ADHD”. So hooked you then read on, and it gets even more dramatic.

“They are unable to concentrate in school…their behaviour deteriorates…they disrupt lessons.” Really? This is every child who watches TV/plays games for 2+ hours? No. But these are big scary things, and they are linked to proper sciency sounding stuff like “their brains become accustomed to stimulation from fast moving images, the researchers say.”

But do they? All the researcher quoted has to say is about the state of modern TV and games making with lots of fast cuts and flickering lights, and that this is more interesting than a teacher in a classroom. No, really? Professor Gentile later adds in this story is that “ADHD is a medical condition, but it’s a brain condition” (What’s with the contradicting conjunction, prof? what’s the but? Are brain conditions not medical?) He goes on: “We know the brain adapts and changes based on the environmental stimuli to which it is exposed.” Crikey, really? In other less lofty circles this is sometimes referred to as learning.

The article rather loses the courage of its convictions as the story staggers to a close. After some quite unexciting facts about the study to make it sound serious, and about the seriousness of ADHD, they rather calm down and begin to get vague. Hoping that we’ve stoppped reading after all these long words, it all gets softened down to “might be a contributing factor for ADHD”. Which is just a bit of a non-story. You could probably cook up some stats and a study to show that eating more than three carrots a week “might be a contributing factor for ADHD.” The final quote from Professor (we assume that he’s a professor, of course, his first name might just be “prof” as it’s never extended beyond that) is “It’s not unreasonable to believe that environmental stimuli can increase the risk for ADHD in the same way cigarettes can increase the risk of cancer.” Does this mean they are equally risky, with equal levels of support? No. It just sounds nice and dramatic, which is either a university professor wanting some extra money coming their way (although not from the gaming industry, perhaps) or a quote taken entirely out of context by a lazy journalist. I’d hope it was the latter, having still some respect for science and academic study, but rather less respect for print journalists on a slow news day. And really, the double negative gives the professor away somewhat: despite grammar mavens and Lynne Truss types wanting to say that a double negative equals a positive, this is rubbish. Grammar isn’t maths or logic – anyone who knows anything about language knows this. A double negative of this type is never taken to mean “It’s reasonable”. What it means is something more like “There is a bit of a possibillity, but not massive, and I’m not committing myself to anything.” But then that’s about par for the course when it comes to small scientific studies that only make tentative stabs in any direction.

And if you want to see how this can all get blown out of proportion, lets choose a nice easy target – the now infamous MMR-autism scare. It’s hard to summarise quickly, but this was something that got blown out of all proportion by the media and a media hunting doctor making dramatic claims over small scale (12 children) studies and has now led to a rise in measles in children when it was almost virtually wiped out by MMR. And that wasn’t about a health service denying freedom of choice to people, it was a health service who knew the facts about MMR, and the real culprits here are the media for taking it so far. Even now perfectly rational people in possession of all the information still have a moment of misgiving when they take their child to have MMR because the worry has been planted. It is also a little scary that people will take what they see in the newspaper as true, but then refuse to believe their doctor. Isn’t that just a little bit the wrong way round?

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