‘News’: Worse than Pot

The Voice of the West — aka, the San Francisco Chronicle — picked up a two-week-old press release from London Wednesday morning and ran it under this headline and subhead:

E-mail addles the mind

Endless messaging

rots brain worse than

pot, study finds

To be fair to the Chron’s reporter — though he did lift quotes directly from the release, attributing one to "a statement" — he did some imaginative legwork. He visited a couple of San Francisco’s medical marijuana clubs to get the proprietors’ views on email.

The source for the story’s dire yet entertaining revelation is HP’s operation in the United Kingdom. It put out a release on April 22 warning of the dangers of a new malady called "Info-Mania" and reporting the results of a study the company commissioned on how distracting modern information technology can be to office workers.

The press release, complete with important-looking footnotes, has an urgent lead: "The abuse of ‘always-on’ technology has led to a nationwide state of ‘Info-Mania’ where UK workers are literally addicted to checking email and text messages during meetings, in the evening and at weekends." 

Britons checking messages — away from the office. And on weekends. Where will they find  time for soccer hooliganism or producing new episodes of "Masterpiece Theatre"?

You’re probably not surprised by that finding. But the reason that
media outlets — or the ones with better reflexes than the Chron —
jumped on the story two weeks ago, was this. HP reported that Dr. Glenn
Wilson of the University of London’s Institute of Psychiatry — "he is
ranked within the 10 most cited British psychologists and appears
regularly on TV and radio," the release notes — conducted a
"scientific experiment" that showed office workers suffer a 10-point
drop in functional IQ when they’re besieged with ringing phones and
electronic messages. And that’s not all. "This drop in IQ is more than
double the four point drop seen following studies on the impact of
smoking marijuana," the press release said, citing a single 2002
Canadian paper.

So there you have it: Email is worse than pot.

I wanted to read more, so I went looking for Dr. Wilson’s study. I
couldn’t find it anywhere, though a couple basic details — Wilson
studied 80 subjects and the findings on messaging habits was based on
interviews with 1,100 people — were widely reported.

I called one of the British HP flacks listed on the press
release. She said that Wilson’s study isn’t online and that there are
no plans for publication. I asked whether it was peer-reviewed
research, and she said no. So — my conclusion — this was really a
more off-the-cuff test than the controlled study the press release
implied. Still, the way the flack described Wilson’s experiment —
subjects’ IQs were measured both during a calm, undisturbed testing
session and while being bombarded with emails, text messages and
landline and mobile phone calls that they were instructed not to answer
— his findings seem reasonable. Who wouldn’t do worse on an IQ test
with all this other stuff going on?

But what about the factor that sexed up that rather
unsurprising finding and got everyone’s attention: Info-mania makes you
dumber than smoking pot?

I noticed that some news accounts, including the Chronicle’s,
mention the Canadian study; but no one quoted from it, and there was
really no evidence that anyone had looked at it. When it came to
reporting what it said, HP’s word was good enough for everyone from The Scotsman to the BBC. (Not everyone took the bait, though. The Washington Post’s Robert McMillan wrote a nice piece
that downplayed the pot angle and got at the real crux of the matter,
which is that most of us are living under constant info-siege).

I went looking online for the Canadian study, "Current and
former marijuana use: preliminary findings of a longitudinal study of
effects on IQ in young adults," by Peter Fried, Barbara Watkinson,
Deborah James and Robert Gray of the Department of Psychology at
Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. Unlike the results of Wilson’s
work for HP, the study is both peer-reviewed and easy to find.

The Canadians took IQ scores from 70 kids who had been tested in their
pre-teen years and compared those numbers with IQ tests taken years
later, after about half of them had started to smoke pot. The
researchers did indeed find a decline in IQ scores among some current pot smokers — only those "who smoked 5 or more joints per week." The study also found that IQ scores had increased 5.8
points on average for current users who smoked fewer than five joints
weekly. Former pot smokers and non-users showed gains of 3.5 and 2.6
points, respectively.

No one’s suggesting that pot is responsible for the higher scores. But
the finding suggests a follow-up study for HP: Whether workers can
handle electronic distractions better when they’re just a little stoned
some of the time.

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