Wednesday 5 November 2008

Stop the communis!

Via one of Switched's interminable parade of "top X" gallery articles, the Sydney Morning Herald reported back in September that the "ratio communis, a key region of the brain, was malfunctioning" during mobile phone texting or GPS usage. Oh no! This has been somewhat credulously re-reported by Switched (with the the embellishment that "UK" researchers made the finding), and God knows how many other blogs, with the usual concerns about what radio is doing to our brains. Scary stuff, for as the article says, the ratio communis keels over completely: "Instead of fluorescing on brain scans, it flickered, grey and dull." Indeed, there have been "fatalities when this key decision-making part of the brain failed". This amazing research led the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) to issue warnings against texting while rollerblading, driving, and so on.

Not to spoil all the fun, but it's nonsense, and either someone pranked the SMH, or the SMH have pranked us. Switched was sceptical on principle, but didn't spend the ten minutes required to confirm their suspicion. "Ratio communis", which the article thinks means "common sense" in latin, actually means "common scheme" in most of the instances I can unearth something closer to "common meaning". It does not appear to refer to any part of the brain, even as a neologism, for it does not appear anywhere on the entirety of PubMed, the go-to archive of medical research (the words appear, separated, in 95 articles). On the intertrons, it only appears in the appropriate neurological context in blogs parroting the SMH story. The ACEP press release is conspicuous by its absence from their website - the warnings the SMH article refers to are from a seperate media release which went out back in August.

I can't help but wonder about the "scientific literature" that crossed the desk at the Sydney Morning Herald and which prompted their article. Either the literature, or the article itself, is a finely-crafted satire at our complete stupidity when a blinking semiconductor box is placed in front of us. (I've contacted the paper to try and discern which.) The reference to fMRI, suggesting that scientists can watch our "common sense centre" shut down as we tap away at our gadgets, was just the icing on the take which, alas, gave it a sheen of veracity and led to a fair few people taking it seriously. Inadvertently, it's satirised our tendency to take anything shown by "science" at face value. I'm glad that it drew less attention than George Carlo's epic fail of a press release about how wi-fi causes autism, at least.

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