Skepticism

Update: Cell Phones STILL Do Not Make Kids Grow Horns

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Transcript:

You know what I love? An update. “90 Day Fiance: where are they now???” Or r/legaladvice posts where original posters return to tell us whether or not their tree lawyer bankrupted the guy who cut down the trees on their property in gross violation of tree law.

Well I’m happy to say that I am here today with an update for you! Specifically, an update to a video I made a few months ago entitled “Do Cell Phones Cause You to Grow Horns???” In that video, spoiler alert, the answer was quickly revealed to be “no.” I talked about a study that was getting media attention for claiming that kids are growing horns because of the way they stare at their cell phones all the time. I pointed out that it wasn’t a “horn” so much as a small bony protuberance that you can’t even see, that the study was done by a chiropractor who sold products and tests to correct posture, that their own data contradicts their finding that it’s mostly found in young males, and that nowhere in the study did they bother to ask their subjects how often they use cell phones, meaning there is absolutely no way anyone can claim any kind of relationship between the bone spurs and cell phones. Stupid study with bad science that spread like wildfire because of an eye-catching but baseless claim. Classic!

Well, I wasn’t the only one who was a bit suspicious about this study, and the negative attention must have eventually convinced the journal that published this trash, Nature’s Scientific Reports, to issue a “correction.” It is, sadly, not a retraction, which would just be them yanking the paper all together. In a “correction,” a few paragraphs are changed to be slightly less fucking stupid. Unfortunately, this leaves the bulk of the study intact, which is a problem because as I went over in my previous video, the entire study is, scientifically speaking, trash. Sorry to break out the heavy science lingo.

The correction basically just removes any references to “horns” and “cell phones,” which is pretty much the whole thing right there, but they’re still claiming that the bone spurs are more often found in young males. The paper previously didn’t include their actual data — all they had was a chart, which showed that women and older people were just as likely to have the spurs as young men. To address this, the “corrected” paper now includes their data, which is very exciting! PBS NewsHour asked some statisticians to take a look at the data and see if they got the same conclusion the researchers found. I’m sure this will absolutely shock you but…they didn’t.

One statistician found that the data could suggest the spurs were more common in older males, but the only way they even made that work is because the original researchers broke their subjects ages into categories that forced the youngest and oldest categories to have the most subjects in them.

The statisticians also looked at the original researchers’ claim that bad posture was to blame for the spurs (which they later suggested was due to cell phone usage, because you push your head out and down to look at your phone. That’s known as forward head protraction). “Jeff Goldsmith, a biostatistician at Columbia University…said among the variables Shahar and Sayers examined, FHP was one of the least predictive for these bone spurs.” It was just barely statistically significant, but plenty of other variables were more significant. Why didn’t they mention those other factors? Probably because something like “head injury in older men is more likely to correlate with 1mm bone growths at the base of the skull” is less likely to go viral than “cell phones make kids grow horns.”

It sucks because as PBS points out in their excellent article on the subject, once the misinformation is out there it’s impossible to correct it. The correction won’t go viral, and even if it research shows that people could read it and completely forget the correction, and in fact become more sure that the original misinformation is true. Human brains are fucked up y’all.

The good news is that this probably isn’t a blow to all of peer-reviewed science. Earlier this week I talked about Peter Boghossian and his troupe of anti-SJWs who made up 20 ridiculous papers and got seven of them published in a few journals focused on things like gender studies. That news did go viral, and the journals that fell for it were rightfully embarrassed and they retracted the papers. Venues like The Atlantic wrote up lengthy articles trying to decide what the “Sokal Squared” hoax “means” for Academia, despite the fact that not even all the journals were peer-reviewed. 

You can debate the ethics of that fraud, but it is true that those journals should completely change the way they operate and how they choose what papers to publish. But of course it’s being used to more generally trash the state of fields like gender studies, when in fact the problem is clearly not confined to a few fields that conservatives and the alt-right tend to hate. The cell phone horn study was accepted into a Nature publication, one of the most revered publishers in the industry, and it is complete bullshit. And even when the bullshit was pointed out to Nature, instead of retracting it, apologizing, and stepping up efforts to weed out fraud and bad science, they issued a bullshit correction and left the paper as-is. The papers in the “Sokal Squared” fraud had zero impact on the world at large, but your great uncle will be sharing the cell phone horn news at Thanksgiving this year, I guarantee it. And no matter how much you try to explain to him that it’s bullshit, he’s not going to believe you because he knows that cell phones are from the devil.

Scientific publishing has a problem, and the only thing that is helping to make it better are the outlets like PBS who are fact-checking papers that have already been published. So remember, just because a paper has been published in a reputable journal it doesn’t mean that it’s legit. And watch your posture. Not because you’ll grow horns but it honestly just makes everyone look better. You’re welcome.

 

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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