Friday, February 27, 2009

The Perils of Facebook

Dr Aric Sigman is a noted opponent of electronic media. He has written a book critical of television (Remotely Controlled: How Television is Damaging Our Lives), as well as newspaper articles saying that Mary Whitehouse (a noted British campaigner against sex and bad language on television) was right (Aric Sigman: In Bed With Mrs Whitehouse).

He has managed to get his latest attack on electronic media (Well connected? The biological implications of ‘social networking’) into a respectable fully peer-reviewed journal (The Biologist). The article was reported on the BBC under the headline Online networking 'harms health' [BBC News, 19 February 2009], reporting Dr Sigman's claim that a lack of "real" social networking, involving personal interaction, may have biological effects.

But what exactly is "real" social networking? Does the telephone count? I sent an email to Dr Sigman requesting a copy of the paper (which was not then available online), and asking a number of questions.

I'd be particularly interested to know whether your analysis allows us to differentiate between the effects of social networking (such as Facebook) and other electronic media (such as computer games and TV). Facebook may be worse than going to the pub, but is it perhaps not as bad as watching TV?

I'd also be interested to know whether you can see any difference between electronically mediated communication with a real person in real time (such as telephone or instant messaging) and disembodied asynchronous communication (such as email and blogging).
I haven't received a reply from Dr Sigman yet, but Ben Goldacre (who writes the Bad Science column for the Guardian) has confronted him on the BBC Newsnight programme. See his account under the sarcastic heading "Facebook Causes Cancer". As Dr Goldacre points out, the article is muddled and partial, and ignores much of the available evidence.

Dr Sigman's article might have been peer reviewed by Dr Sigman's peers, but that's obviously not saying much. In an ideal world, an article that claims to be saying something about the biological effects of computing in a social context should be rigorously reviewed not only by biologists but also by computer scientists and sociologists. Next time the Biology journal wants to publish this kind of thing, I should be delighted to give the author a peer review he won't forget.

See also Will Reader, who thinks Sigman is "doing a Sokal". Transgressing the boundaries via John Connell (cache).

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