Mad Science Monday: The (Missing) Link Between Smartphones and Horns

July 3, 2019

x-ray of bone spur on the skull

Image by Shahar D. and Sayers M., Scientific Reports, 2019/CC BY 4.0

Welcome to Mad Science Mondays, where we talk about depictions of science in movies, TV shows, books, and the media. We dissect the good, the bad, the comical and the outright irresponsible. Who says learning about science can’t be fun?

OK, yes, it’s not technically Monday anymore. I traveled, I was felled by an airplane cold. But then, as I soaked my coughing muscles in a hot bath while listening to old episodes of The Daily Show on Sirius on Demand, I heard an incredible story about how smartphone use is causing millennials to grow horns. Here’s the link to coverage at the BBC.

Hacking up my second lung, my first thought in reaction to this story was, well, sure. Because I use the internet regularly and have therefore been exposed to a lot of conversation about the evils of both millennials and smart phones, so the equation

millennials + smartphones = inevitable emergence of inner demons

seemed completely logical.

My second thought, emerging from my life-long exposure to both the sciences and oft-times sketchy science reporting, was that this story was indeed incredible, in the  sense of “impossible to believe.”

My second thought was the way to go, as this plain-language article from PBS outlines in some detail.

TL/DR version: the authors of the original study didn’t actually measure cell phone use in their subjects, meaning they are blaming a skeletal anomaly on a specific behaviour based on… absolutely no data.

Another red flag? The authors recommend preventative postural education, and one of them runs an online store that sells posture-correcting pillows.

In science speak, that’s called a conflict of interest. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the results of the research are biased, but it absolutely means that readers should apply an extra filter of critical thinking before accepting them.

I encourage everyone to read the PBS article, because it’s a great primer on scientific literacy that provides tools for assessing all science reported in the media. In the meantime, you can probably stop poking your skull in search of horns.

Updated to add: I mentioned this story to my (brutal but effective) massage therapist today and his understanding is that bone spurs result from joint compression, which would affect the front of the neck and head during phone use, not the back of the skull. Granted, he had not yet read the study, but there you go.

What are your thoughts on this story? Do you have other favourite examples of incredible results to share?


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