Thursday, December 10, 2009

E-unlearning: Virtual Iraq treats PTSD

Every year I buy The Best of American Science Writing, and every year I come across at least one, often more, astounding pieces of work that change my world view. One was a paper on first-cousin marriage in the Middle East which explained why western ideas of government could never succeed in some countries, as they never replace close kinship, family and tribal affiliations in their populations. Another showed meticulous research showing that bullies do not suffer from low self-esteem, but a surfeit of esteem, and that efforts to bolster their esteem backfire, making them worse!

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

This year, 2009, brought a fascinating tale of US soldiers being successfully treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) through video games. Patients don a helmet with goggles, earphones, supplemented by a scent machine and realistic simulations from the video game Full Spectrum Warrior (originally developed as a training programme). They then go back to experience the horrors of war that caused their condition in the first place.

Nearly 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from PTSD and most therapies don’t seem to work. This new type of therapy is based on Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy and tries neutralise the cues that trigger PTSD by playing back the traumatic experiences over and over again, leading to ‘habituation’.

The technique was first used in 1997 with some long-term PTSD Vietnam veterans and all showed signs of improvement. This time round the system was way more sophisticated and in all groups that have used the system, four out of five, eight out of ten and eight out of nine, no longer meet the criteria for PTSD. This is an astonishing rate of success.

Crazy - me?

Interestingly, many sufferers had previously avoided treatment or cut out of treatment due to the stigma of being thought of as ‘crazy’. The fact that the treatment was using computer games, was seen as ‘cool and unthreatening’. There are already signs that computer games can be used in healthcare to good effect, with improved performance in surgery, pain management in children, Alzheimers and other conditions.


Alternative realities (e-unlearning) may be more than just escapism, they may be just the thing to cure minds of faulty imagined realities. Ultimately, depression and many other forms of mental illness may well be relieved by such virtual approaches, where the mind heals itself through created realities.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Facebook causes cancer! The Big Debate

Fireworks in Berlin at 'The Big Debate', where Aric Sigman and I locked horns on the question:

“The increasing use of technology and social software is damaging students' minds and undermining the benefits of traditional methods of learning”.

I argued that it improved students’ minds and enhanced the benefits of traditional education.

'Facebook causes cancer' was a headline from the Daily Mail this year, sparked off by a paper written by Aric Sigman, in a peer reviewed journal called ‘Biologist’ (Well connected? The biological implications of ‘social networking’). Ben Godacre, Doctor and award winning journalist, author of Bad Science, and a debunker of some renown, took Sigman to task on Newsnight. It’s as good a demolition job as I’ve ever seen on Newsnight and I’ve seen a few. Even Paxman thought he was a nutter! (Also watch out for Susan Greenfield's admission that there is NO EVIDENCE.)

Sigman's Cherry picking

Back to the debate. I followed Goldacre’s line and attacked the original paper on the grounds that the papers Sigman cited did NOT mention social networking and were largely about medical effects in people over the age of fifty, in some cases even older.

Cole SW et al (2007) Social regulation of gene expression in human leukocytes

No mention of ‘social networking’

Tiny sample aged 50-67

Lamkin D M (2008) Positive psychosocial factors and NKT cells in ovarian cancer patients

No mention of ‘social networking’

Study of women over 65

Rutledge T et al (2004) Social networks are associated with lower mortality rates among women with suspected coronary disease

No mention of ‘social networking’

Mean age was 59

Cohen S et al (1997) Social ties and susceptibility to the common cold

No mention of ‘social networking’

1997 way before social networks!

Ertel K A et al (2008) Effects of Social Integration on Preserving Memory Function in a Nationally Representative US Elderly Population

No mention of ‘social networking’

US sample of elderly adults


On top of this, on one citation, he deliberately failed to mention that the authors Kraut R et al (1998) (Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being?) who had discovered small negative effects of using Internet on measures of social involvement and psychological well-being among Pittsburgh families in 1995-1996, had in Kraut R et al (2001) (Internet Paradox Revisited) had changed their minds, “In a 3-year follow-up of the original sample, we find that negative effects dissipated over the total period. We also report findings from a longitudinal study in 1998-99 of new computer and television purchasers. This new sample experienced overall positive effects of using the Internet on communication, social involvement, and well-being.” That is more than cherry-picking by Sigman, it’s deception.

In fact the evidence, that Sigman knew about, but deliberately ignored points to the opposite:

1. Caplan SE (2007) “Relations among loneliness, social anxiety, and problematic Internet use.”

“The results support the hypothesis that the relationship between loneliness and preference for online social interaction is spurious.”

2. Sum et al (2008) “Internet use and loneliness in older adults“.

greater use of the Internet as a communication tool was associated with a lower level of social loneliness.”

3. Subrahmanyam et al (2007) “Adolescents on the net: Internet use and well-being.

“loneliness was not related to the total time spent online, nor to the time spent on e-mail”

Byron review

Tanya Byron was commissioned to look specifically at these issues by the UK government and in a well conducted and level-headed research project, collected a” vast array of evidence…commissioned three literature reviews:

up to date research evidence on children’s brain development – Prof. Mark Johnson Birkbeck University

comprehensive review on the vast body of child development research - Professor Usha Goswami Cambridge University

current media effects literature in relation to video games and the internet – Prof. David Buckingham Institute of Education"

Annexes F, G, and H and at

Some of her conclusions, relevant to this debate, were that, “there is no clear evidence of desensitisation in children”, “children actively involved in sport play on consoles for same amount of time as those who are not” and “technology specifically useful; for those with learning difficulties and disabilities”.

US Department of Education Study

In support of my proposition that technology enhanced education I then quoted from the US Department of Education’s study ‘Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies’ which looked at data from 1996 to 2008, selecting rigorous, measurable effects, random assignment and the existence of controls, “The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving traditional face-to-face instruction.” and “Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction.”

Finally I pointed toYouTube EDU, iTUNES U, Open Learn, MITOPENCOURSEWARE, Project Gutenberg and the Hole in the Wall project to show that there are some wonderful examples of enhancement.


Aric Sigman is the academic version of Sue Palmer, cherry-picking luddites who have books to sell, with titles like ‘Toxic Childhood’ and The Spoilt Child’. They’re part of a ‘parenting industry’ that creates and thrives on fear. It’s people like them that are promoting helicopter parenting and risk averse attitudes that lead to kids being locked up indoors, not the technology.

That's was pretty much my case. I only had 10 minutes, so summed up with a quote from Douglas Adams,

everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really. Apply this list to movies, rock music, TV, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.”

We won the vote. I have to say that it was a great format and really got the juices flowing. Conferences should have more of this.

One last point. Sigman claimed that kids spend on average 7.5 hours a day online. I challenged this but he stuck to his guns. Now I don't know about you, but but mine would have to switch on the minute they got back from school and stay focussed until midnight every night without going to the toilet, eating etc. This figure alone makes him look ridiculous.


Here’s some tweets and a blog post on the debate:

Why blame technology for something that depends on the home environment, parents must take responsibility for childrens learning

read his book on 'bad science' and then you'll see through people like aric

by the way, nasty of Aric to slag Ben Goldacre..he's not a journalist but a doctor and specialises in statistical misuse

Good fuel for a hot debate - extremely well selected speakers

Donald Clark : technologies helps inclusion. Very important

The Brits are demonstrating how to run a controversial debate. Fun.

Lectures on YouTubeEdu are improving education. Teachers get a larger audience

Donald Clark: USDE meta study found good support of e-learning

Donald Clark: Aric's studies based on the elderly, not using social networking

Sigman uses sources for his theory that are not about social networking

Sigman does not understand that social software is very social

listening to Aric Sigman I start to think we should call it OFFLINE Educa next year.

Aric Sigman: North Korea as the model for modern education - teachers get respect!

The sessions were rounded off with a 'debate' on the proposal that the internet is destroying our children's minds. A motion led by Aric Sigman who shouted and attempted to scare everyone. His extremely aggressive style offended some, particularly those unfamiliar with him (the vast majority of the 2,000+ international delegates), but for others gradually seemed like a raving madman. He attacked the audience as being pushers of this mind-rotting technology..not a great debating tactic, but he gives the impression of a man who cares about nothing other than his ego which was bloated by the use of the video projection screens, sadly.

He then was robustly challenged by Donald Clark who did a great job and was happy enough to show some passion and contempt for the scaremongering. The next two speakers were less effective. Bruce 'the Brute' (see Private Eye) Anderson, a veritable caricature of a fleet street hack, his tie slung askew muttered along the lines of trying to support the motion but being 'reasonable' (the old good cop/bad cop pairing), then some guy 'from Silicon Valley,' Jerry Michalski gave a fairly anodyne response to that...his analogy of the development of the 'automobile' with the net currently being at Model T wasn't a good one for a European audience, as a bicycling Dutchman commented!

Anyway, what needs to be said to those unfamiliar with Dr. Sigman is that cherry-picking (ie selective use of some reports and wilfully ignoring of other contradictory findings) seems to be his speciality, as pointed out by Ben Goldacre who he seemed to have a pop at during the session. If you want more on this aspect and some examples then visit this link.