Bad science

I felt the need to have a little rant. Last night I watched Jo Frost’s Supernanny Extreme Parental Guidance (hoping to pick up some tips, clearly) and managed to get very, very annoyed at one of the features. This centred around whether violent computer games make kids lack empathy, and the experiment was so full of holes it was ridiculous.

To start they quoted some facts about the average child watching a screen for six hours a day, and immediately started talking about violent computer games. The inference is clear; they have just failed to mention that he average child watches television, and uses the computer in a whole range of other ways. Next, we have the controlled trial: 40 teenage boys split into two groups, one playing a violent game for 20 minutes, the other playing a football game. 40 subjects. 20 minutes. The boys’ heart rates were tested during the game play and the rate of those playing the violent game was found to be higher (although no mention of the word significant was made at any point).

At this point Jo Frost looks worried. So they’ve ‘proved’ that twenty boys on one occasion some had a higher average heart rate than another twenty. I can feel her constanation. Clearly we need no more evidence to see how computer games are rotting the minds of our youth. But there is more…

The next part of the experiment involved the researcher ‘randomly’ interviewing participants from each group (how many is not made clear – four? five? nineteen?), which the viewer sees through a hidden camera. During the interview, the researcher accidentally knocks over a jar of pens and in the majority of cases the boys who had played the football game helped pick them up while those that had played the violent game did not. What more proof do you need that violent computer games lead to lack of empathy? Except that the researcher had obviously decided that violent games were the work of Satan before the start of the experiment and had pre-judged the actions of the boys. When he dropped the pens during an interview with a football game player he stopped, looked at the pens and started to pick them up – the boy reluctantly helped; whereas with the violent game players he ignored the pens and so did the boys. They were simply mirroring him.

Now, I’m not going argue that violent games don’t make children lack empathy (to be honest, I don’t know enough about it), and I appreciate that there may be more to the experiments than could be typically shown in a short TV feature. However, I strongly feel that that faux-scientific experiments and Brass-Eye style media frenzy is not the way to take a rigourous and impartial look as something as serious as the potential effects of violent games.


  1. Peter

    Lots of folks saying similar things about bias in this experiment

    and this is the guy who designed the experiment

  2. Katie Piatt

    and another:

    seems people can’t get away with bad science quite as easily these days!

  3. John Kirriemuir

    Have very recently returned to the field of COTS games in education, after several years in the wilderness of virtual worlds :-) and was disappointed to find the games violence thing still wittering on. Dug further, as part of a piece of research for a client; it looks like there are just three people who have made a complete career out of saying, and trying to prove, that violent games are “bad”. Take their oft-dodgy research away and the citation and reference base for this particular topic pretty much collapses.

    And don’t get me started on the quality of the research of those three individuals…

  4. Mark Power

    Yep, saw the same programme myself. I’m no expert on these things but I’m pretty sure it was sponsored by the Daily Mail. As for Jo Frost…well…onto the naughty step for her I reckon.

    To pick up on John’s point though, what worries me is that we see this elsewhere – a handful of so-called experts that have the ear of Those With Power….and all of a sudden everything is held up against their questionable view of the world. Well…they have letters after their names you know. They must “know stuff”

  5. John Siraj-Blatchford

    – have you seen:

    The Mail also covered it this week + Telegraph also wrote this a few weeks ago:

    This was my response (don’t know if anyone will publish):

    Aric Sigman – is he a time traveller from the past?

    My admittedly limited reading of history suggests that Ned Ludd might have had good cause to be smashing textile machinery in the 19th Century, and that the term Luddite is often misapplied in the context of technological critique. Yet it would be difficult to find a better term to describe Aric Sigman’s suggestion that computers should be banned from schools until children reach the age of 9 (as reported in your article by Julie Henry 13.6.01). Sigman’s arguments are fundamentally flawed as he fails to differentiate between computer hardware and computer software, and is clearly unaware of much of the high quality early childhood software currently available and in use in effective early childhood settings. Research does show that extended periods of passive TV viewing are potentially harmful and we can quite reasonably assume that that the same would apply to the passive application of computer programmes such as arcade games. But in his usual style of self publication, self promotion and punditry, Sigman applies a highly misleading selective citation of research to overstate his case for banning the use of computers in early childhood. Most significantly Sigman demonstrates his total ignorance of this developing field of specialist research. The most robust evidence on the subject shows that high quality computer applications provide effective support for early learning and development in precisely the areas of development that Sigman is concerned about. Quality computer applications encourage greater rather than less interaction between children, and between children and adults. They also encourage off screen ‘head and hands-on’ activity by the child so that the dichotomy that Sigman draws between the virtual and the 3D world is entirely false.

    It is at best disengenous and at worse blatantly misleading to suggest that computer use in early childhood has been justified soley in terms of the child’s ‘interest’. At their best Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) play a valuable dual purpose in early childhood education: They provide powerful teaching and learning tools and they also provide children with an early introduction to technologies that should be recognised as as much a crucial a part of the cultural and educational contexts of the 21st Century as any other aspect of the natural or made environment.

    This rant connects with my Watch with Mother blog:

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