We here at TBS are dedicated to bringing you the very best articles with the most relevant and up-to-date information on a range of topics related to education.
In an ideal world, that would be a great service in and of itself. It would make life easier for you and for us if that were all there was to providing an informational website.
But sometimes merely finding an article, introducing it, and providing you with a link to it are not enough. Sometimes, we also need to pause and reflect on the unspoken assumptions that the author of the article is making. The reason is that such assumptions may affect the value of the information being provided, or may slant it one way or another, without the author’s even being aware of it. Here is a good case in point.
In a recent article, entitled “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction,” Matt Richtel, a technology reporter for The New York Times, writes about a growing body of neuroscience evidence that purports to show that playing videogames, social networking on the Internet, and “multitasking” are having a deleterious effect on the ability of the present generation of teenagers to focus on the kind of traditional, unwired material that they are expected to master in school.
As Richter writes, quoting Michael Rich, Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School:
The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.
This sort of talk about “brain wiring” makes for good newspaper copy, but does it make sense? It seems to assume that there is a difference between “my brain” and “me,” and that I am just the plaything of it.
Here we are entering into deep waters—nothing less than the problem of free will—and it is no easy task to disentangle all of the misguided thinking that is bound up in this increasingly common way of reporting on contemporary science. We cannot enter seriously into these matters here, though we hope to do so at greater length in the near future. But two things should be immediately obvious, and ought to give journalists like Richtel pause.
First, if you give people an excuse for their bad behavior, you are hurting them, not helping them.
Second, Professor Rich’s and his colleagues’ pronouncements about “brain wiring” go beyond what science can establish, and trespass onto philosophical territory.
Regarding the first point, probably it is utopian to expect that journalists should abide by the doctors’ dictum: First, do no harm!
However, regarding the second point, we do not think it is too much to ask that journalists learn to distinguish between real science—claims that are reproducible in the laboratory—and philosophical opinions masquerading as science.
Neuroscientists can now tell us in some cases which parts of our brains are associated with certain of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, by observing (using fMRI technology) which parts of our brains receive increased blood flow when we are thinking, feeling, and acting in those ways. That much is scientific fact.
However, it does not logically follow from this fact that we are the puppets of our brains. After all, for anything that the neuroscientists have shown, it could just as easily be the case that willing is the cause and the redirecting of blood flow the effect.
Of course, there is a great deal more to be said on this age-old conundrum. Our only point here is that journalists ought not to confuse such difficult philosophical problems with the relatively simply questions that can be answered by laboratory science.
It is worth noting that at least one of the teenagers interviewed in the article had a sounder understanding of free will than either the journalist or the Harvard Medical School professor. Richtel reports that:
He says he sometimes wishes that his parents would force him to quit playing and study, because he finds it hard to quit when given the choice.
In other words, the kid knows that he has it in his power to study, even though it is not as much fun as playing video games, if he so chooses.
He also realizes that he needs help in learning to resist temptation.
Finally, he understands that it is the role of his parents to help him do this by setting boundaries for him while he is still a kid.
Would that our journalists and our Harvard professors were as philosophically astute as this young man!