On the RSA disinviting me from chairing Professor Susan Greenfield
Briefly (from work, just out of ward round, with slow NHS internet):
Two months ago I was invited by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) to chair an event where Susan Greenfield (previous director of the Royal Institution) was to present her scientific theories on “Mind Change”. They hoped that I would be able to listen, and then offer her some challenging questions about the evidence for her case (because her argument is widely regarded as flimsy). I was happy to take a few hours away from clinical work, as I thought this could be an interesting event. My concern is that Professor Greenfield has avoided setting out her frightening scientific theories clearly, with evidence, to her scientific colleagues, for informed critique. That is why I wrote this piece, in 2011:
So I said yes.
This event was announced by the RSA with me as chair.
This event was posted on the RSA website with me as chair.
Then something changed.
When Professor Greenfield was told about this plan, she refused to have me as chair, and the RSA disinvited me.
I think this is a shame. They did suggest that I should “debate” with Professor Greenfield on “Mind Change”. As I explained to them: I have no special expertise, knowledge, or position on “Mind Change”. I don’t feel I’m in a position to write and deliver a 20 minute presentation on it. I’ve not just published a book on it. My concern is simply that Professor Greenfield is misusing science, and expressing her claims inconsistently, and I’m very happy to discuss that publicly.
(If anything, despite the poisonous things Professor Greenfield has said about me, I’m a little concerned not to be too ad hom here: I can’t picture what a formal debate title would be. “Frightening scientific theories should be published clearly in a scientific journal”? “Professor Greenfield misrepresents evidence and avoids forums where serious discussion of her ideas can be offered”? I don’t feel comfortable with a debate title built around an individual in that way.)
Matthew Taylor, the Director of the RSA - doing the same job as Greenfield at the RI - telephoned to explain their position. He was very concerned, understandably, to protect the reputation of the RSA. I said that I couldn’t commit to take time out of work to write and deliver a lengthy presentation for him on “Mind Change”, but that I was happy to be a “respondent”: to set out my concerns about the preceeding case made by Professor Greenfield (“Why much of what you’ve just heard is a distortion of science, and why the RSA probably isn’t the best place to resolve that problem.”). That was a no go.
I will very happily do this, at any prominent talk in London by Professor Greenfield where someone wishes to invite me.
I can think of many others from the scientific community who may also be willing to do this, across the country.
I also think it would have been very useful and informative, and fair, to have questioned Greenfield about her claims, at this RSA event today.
It seems to me that this episode illustrates one point very clearly. Science is about expressing your hypothesis clearly, and consistently, in a forum that welcomes and facilitates critical appraisal of the evidence presented. That is why we have academic journals, and academic conferences. It seems to me that Professor Greenfield has sidestepped this healthy process. In doing so, she has created a situation where it is impossible to critically appraise the evidence for her claims, without her being able to present this as some kind of ugly personal attack. That strikes me as extremely unhealthy.
Here are some good recent pieces on Professor Greenfield’s claims by academics, clinicians, and science communicators:
Once again: if you are organising a talk by Professor Greenfield, invite me to come, and respond, set out the misuse of science - and ask questions - afterwards.
I am very keen.
I will bring slides.
This piece from 3/10/14 is very good: