// May 26th, 2011 // No Comments » // Uncategorized
When distracted by emails or phone calls in the workplace, we are, according to a story carried by BBC News some years ago, likely to suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers. A research study carried out at the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College in London found that excessive use of technology reduced workers’ intelligence by as much as 10 points.
That story, picked up by many other mainstream media (including CNN, the Times and the New Scientist) and hundreds of websites and blogs, seemed to confirm our worst fears: the constant onslaught of emails, text messages, phone calls and status updates is draining our intelligence. And what of our children, exposed to the cacophony of modern life since birth? What chance do they have when every cellphone beep signals another assault on their IQ?
Journalist David H Freedman decided to dig a little deeper. He tracked down Dr Glenn Wilson, author of the study, and reported on the encounter in his 2010 book “Wrong: Why experts keep failing us – and how to know when not to trust them”:
“When I asked him about the study, Dr Wilson … explained that the entire affair had been the bright idea of a marketing executive at the PC manufacturer Hewlett-Packard … a bit of paid research into the effects of multitasking. … Encouraged by his sponsor at HP to keep the budget extremely low, and ensured there was no pretence of trying to obtain scientifically valid, peer-reviewable, journal-publishable results, Wilson dragged eight students into a quiet room one at a time and gave them a standard IQ test, and then gave each of them another one – except that the second time he left either a phone ringing continuously in the room or a flashing notification of incoming email on a computer monitor in front of them. And what do you know? The students scored a bit lower while hounded by the constant noise or flashing light. ‘It didn’t prove much of anything, of course,’ Wilson told [the journalist]. ‘But Hewlett-Packard seemed happy with it and I thought that was the end of it.’”
Except that the story took on a life of its own, fuelled by an HP press release that gave no hint of the crudity and tiny scale of the experiment – and wildly overreached in its interpretation of the results (including a bizarre but headline-grabbing comparison to the effects of marijuana). Dr Wilson’s phone rang hot with reporter enquiries but despite his best efforts to straighten the record he had little luck in doing so. Eventually even HP became alarmed by the extent of the coverage and asked Dr Wilson to decline further comment. By then the damage had been done and the supposed ill-effects of technology had entered corporate folk lore: at a recent conference business guru Julie Morgenstern grimly cautioned her audience, “We used to think multitasking was efficient, but now we know it causes brain damage.”
Freedman’s book is peppered with similar examples of conclusions improperly drawn from research, erroneous opinions offered by experts or professional studies based on inadequate, inappropriate or incomplete hypotheses:
Can Vitamin D supplements help fend off cancer?
No, said a 1999 study
Yes, said a study in 2006 – it cuts risk up to 50 percent
Yes, said a study in 2007 – it cuts risk up to 77 percent
No, said a 2008 study
So what should we believe and what can we safely ignore?
Freedman offers up some useful characteristics of expert advice that has a higher than average likelihood of being wrong:
- The conclusions are simplistic, universal and definitive
- It’s supported by only a single study or many small or less careful ones
- It’s groundbreaking
- It’s pushed by people or organisations that stand to benefit from its acceptance
- It’s geared towards preventing a future occurrence of a prominent recent failure of crisis
On the other hand, we can feel more confident with expert advice if:
- It’s a negative finding
- It’s heavy on qualifying statements
- It’s candid about contrary opinions and conflicting information
- It provides context and perspective
- It provides candid, blunt comments
For a healthy, sceptical view of today’s expert-guided environment (and some rather frightening examples), check out “Wrong”.