Last week the ever-reliable Daily Mail ran possibly its most absurd headline ever: How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer. The Wail, which it pains me to say is the second-most-read newspaper in the UK, has a venerable history of claiming that every substance and circumstance in existence can either raise or lower the risk of cancer - sometimes both, depending on which article you read - but this attack on social networking ("could"-count 4; "may"-count 2) was a new low.
As it happens, I learned of this article from the ever-reliable (this time I use the term non-sarcastically) Dr Ben Goldacre, via the social networking medium of Twitter (Follow him. He's @bengoldacre and, since I may as well shamelessly promote myself while I'm at it, I'm @superglaze). Goldacre is the man behind Bad Science, a marvellous Guardian column, blog and book. After Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield, the head of the Royal Institution, weighed into the "debate" by backing up Aric Sigman, the author of the paper behind the original Mail article (you can read her views in another splendid Mail article entitled Social websites harm children's brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist), Goldacre felt compelled to appear on Newsnight, sparring with Sigman, last night. Do watch the video, and do enjoy the general atmosphere of exasperation.
The issue has clearly struck a nerve on both sides. In one camp you have Sigman, Greenfield and the Mail arguing for caution over social networking, based on a very vague potential for associated biological harm. In the other, you have Goldacre and pretty much everyone I know (although my friends and colleagues are, admittedly, hardly technophobic) arguing that the idea of Facebook causing cancer or rotting the brain is patently ludicrous.
The whole kerfuffle reminds me strongly of an interview I did almost a year ago with Lee Siegel, author of the book Against The Machine. To briefly recap, Siegel was burned by an incident involving anonymous contributors being nasty to him in the comments section of a piece he wrote for The New Republic (he created his own anonymous profile on the site to hit back, and was busted) and ended up writing a book in which he argued that the interwebs were doing terrible things to society. He had a particular bone to pick with social networking sites, which he said were leading people to package themselves like products for others' consumption.
Siegel, like Sigman and Greenfield, pretty much ignored all the positive effects of social networking - which, by the way, you're engaging in right now by reading, and hopefully commenting on, this blog. As Goldacre points out, there is an awful lot of evidence that suggests online social networking is frequently used as an augmentation to users' existing, offline social networks. I can certainly testify that I use Facebook as an organisational tool for parties and other get-togethers, and I would argue that these demonstrable benefits outweigh fears that are couched in many layers of "could".
However, Siegel's argument has one distinct advantage over that of Sigman and Greenfield: it's not based on biological concerns. His views may be somewhat ranty, but Siegel is effectively calling for a worldwide, webwide debate about the nature of online activity and what that does to us as individuals and as a society. That much I think is fair enough, and to be welcomed.
We do need to debate these things. It scares me every time I cast my mind back to when I first became aware of the web in the mid-nineties, and how much life has changed since then - largely because of the web. It astonishes me every time I think how recently Facebook actually came into existence, and what a short time it took for some of my more bleeding-edge tech compatriots to declare it "over" in favour of Twitter (fodder for another blog, that subject). The pace of change right now really is amazing, and each new development causes some alteration to the way we live our lives. Certainly, the nature of childhood has changed. As much as it did with the introduction of TV? I don't know.
But that's not biology. It's sociology, and it's bloody fascinating, and I look forward to the debates that will and should ensue. The only reason that anybody gives any credence whatsoever to the bizarre claims of Sigman and Greenfield is that there's a grain of truth in what they say. Let's not dismiss that grain outright, but let's also not allow pseudoscience to pervert the conversation.