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More Skull Horns in Our Future

The political commentator Alexander Cockburn used to say: Newspaper corrections exist to make you believe everything else in the paper is true.

That’s the way I feel about the skull horn study and the science-media-industrial promotion complex today.

ICYMI: a 2018 study in Scientific Reports that found frequent instances of growth of a bone spur at the back of people’s heads across all demographic groups suddenly got global attention last week through these BBC and Washington Post reports.

The BBC quoted the study’s lead author attributing the spur growths to habitual hunching over our cellphones and saying the phenomenon was impacting millennials and especially millennial men.

The Post dubbed the growths “hornlike spikes,” which soon became shortened into “horns.”

Voila: Science says cellphone use is making us grow horns.

The study is bad in so many ways, it turns out. Nsikan Akpan, the digital science producer for PBS NewsHour, details them all here in what is, for the science communication geek, a truly thrilling vivisection of that badness.

The badness was also reported widely. And Nature Publishing Group, which owns Scientific Reports, is investigating how the study got through peer review and how the lead author — a chiropractor who hawked online products such as a $195 “Thoracic Pillow” — wasn’t flagged for conflict of interest.

We might conclude: the science-media complex worked, at least in this instance. A bad study that got publicity was identified, called out, shamed and corrected. Problem solved. Go back home and text, folks; nothing to see here.

If you believe that, read the part of Akpan’s piece where he asks “how did this happen and why does it matter?” Oh, what the hell — I’ll just quote it for you:

The weaknesses in the “horns” study are opaque to most readers. But things you can look for when you’re trying to suss out whether a science story holds up:

– outside commentary on the study at-hand

– clues about whether the research was peer-reviewed and by whom,

– what data the study uses as a source

– and finally: Does the study claim more than it proves?

This last point and this episode offer a reminder about the modern news cycle.

History shows us — such as with Andrew Wakefield’s retracted study on measles and autism — that the stakes are high when reporting on science and health. Such misinformation erodes the public’s ability to comprehend what is empirically right and backed by facts versus what is fiction.

Even if this EOP study is retracted and every news story is corrected with additional context, people who saw the first story may not notice or see the update. Research conducted over the last decade or so shows that once an idea gains traction in people’s minds, it can repel fact-checking. Indeed, a correction can at times reinforce the misinformation.

As you might imagine, I have some questions:

Question 1: How many science writers are equipped to wade into studies and hammer on methodologies and conclusions with Akpan’s training and skill? Versus being stenographers for a press release?

Question 2: How many science communicators are able to ask those questions? And how many dare do that of their own organization’s scientists?

Question 3: If your answers are what I think they’ll be to Question 3, why shouldn’t we expect more studies like the skull horn one to be published, make headlines and penetrate consciousness  like the retracted study on measles and autism  to the detriment of science?

The Post did update its story on the study with quotes from outside researchers and additional context. Here’s how it framed those changes in a new intro to the piece:

Update 6/25: After publication of this story, concerns were raised about an undisclosed business venture of one of the researchers, who works as a chiropractor. This story has been updated to reflect questions about a possible conflict of interest involving his business. The journal that published the main study in question said it was investigating the concerns. The researchers say they are making minor changes to their paper, but stand by their work.

The headline of the Post piece (“’Horns’ are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests”) remains unaltered, as do the opening six paragraphs.

Two days ago, the Post also published a new piece in its Science section headlined: “Misinformation is everywhere. These scientists can teach you to fight BS.”

No mention in it of the skull horn study.