Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock and have cut off all contact with the outside world (something I admit is tempting these days), you’ve probably heard that teenagers are growing horns because of cell phones. An article about an alleged “scientific” study appeared in the Washington Post (warning, may be paywalled) and… Oh dear lord.
Look, I’m not a biologist or a doctor or a nurse or any kind of health care professional, but even I can detect the heady aroma of pure bull shit when I smell it, and this story positively reeks. Didn’t anyone at WaPo do any actual fact checking on this before they published it? If they had they would have realized that this whole story from beginning to end is, well, [sniff, sniff…] Smell that? Yeah, that’s what you smell, all right, BS.
First, what they saw in the x-rays aren’t “horns”. They aren’t even remotely, in any way, related to horns. At the base of your skull is a small bump called the external occipital protuberance. A fancy name for the place where muscles and ligaments attach to the back of your head so you can move it. It’s supposed to be there. And that extra growth of bone the article calls a “horn” is just a common, ordinary bone spur caused by overuse or stress on that attachment point.
Second, and perhaps the most important, they don’t hurt you. Millions, and I mean millions of people have these things and don’t even know they’re there. In the story the author of the study claims that these things were rare until fairly recently. That isn’t true. They are very, very common. Chances are good that you have one right now, especially if you’re getting a bit older. At least 25% of people over the age of 60 or so have them. They have no symptoms, don’t cause any problems, don’t do anything in 99.9% of the people who have ’em. They show up on skull and neck x-rays all the time and doctors ignore them because they almost never cause people problems.
Third, there is no real proof supporting the claim that young people are developing these things at a significantly higher rate. The study’s authors claim this is true, but that is based on examining only 1,200 specially selected x-rays of chiropractic patients. We have no idea how or why these x-rays were chosen. They claim the x-rays were selected from patients who had experienced no pain, but if they had no neck pain, why were there x-rays of their necks in the first place? As far as I’ve been able to tell, the authors have refused to give any real details about how and why these x-rays were selected according to the people who have been trying to find out more information, and when questioned simply refer people back to the inadequate information in the original study.
Fourth, the claim that these bones spurs are related to using cellphones and other hand held devices isn’t supported by any actual data either. Yes, tilting one’s head forward to look down at a cell phone puts added strain on the neck, and one might think that this would stress that area and could cause the development of bone spurs, but that’s not how actual science works. In actual science you have to prove your ideas with actual data, not just make a logical guess. Sometimes “logic” is wrong. For years it was claimed that drinking coffee was a cancer risk because coffee drinkers seemed to have a higher than normal incidence of cancer. Until someone came along and noticed that those studies were done at at time when huge numbers of people also used tobacco products, and a lot of coffee drinkers were smokers. The increased risk of cancer was, of course, caused by tobacco use, not coffee. So while it seems possible that there might be an increase in bone spurs at this location could be caused by the use of hand held devices, you can’t actually prove that by looking at only 1,200 specially selected x-rays that were selected for reasons the authors won’t tell us. These people might have had other physical issues that could have caused the spurs, might have engaged in activities that caused them. A lot of sports cause stress on the neck that could cause the spurs. We cannot associate cell phone use with an increase in spurs unless other possible causes are eliminated.
Fifth, and finally, we come to the author of the study, one Davad Shahar, a chiropractor, a field which has its own share of problems to begin with that I’m not going to get into right now. But what I will point out is that this Shahar bills himself as “Dr. Posture” and sells, guess what, devices he claims improve one’s posture…
So to sum it all up: These things aren’t “horns”, they’re simple bone spurs. Hundreds of millions of people develop these things. Doctors have known about these things for decades and ignored them because they almost never cause people problems. The claim that there is a dramatic increase in these among young people is backed up by data that is highly questionable. The study also was found to make claims that are contradicted by data published in the study itself. And the lead author of the study sells devices he claims can correct the problems his “study” claims to have discovered.
Sigh… I might have expected a story like this to turn up someplace like the Daily Mail or one of the supermarket tabloids, but the Washington Post? Don’t they have any editors who actually edit, or fact checkers that actually check facts? Ten minutes of research should have been enough to kill this story.
Anyway, sorry for the rant. I just get so frustrated some days I have to vent.
7 thoughts on “Horns? Seriously? Washington Post Flushes Truth (And Its Reputation) Down the Toilet”
Maybe Moses had a cell phone? In Jerome’s vulgate Bible Moses had horns for nearly a thousand years. People believed it then and they’ll believe it now. Have we gone nowhere?
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We really do seem to have gone nowhere, I fear. Once upon a time I had hopes for the human race back in the 60s and 70s. We were making enormous scientific progress. It seemed we were finally making inroads against prejudice of all types. We were making inroads against superstitious nonsense. The average level of education was going up. But now? I just don’t know. It’s like in the last generation or two we’ve lost all of the progress we started to make and have even begun to go backwards.
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This is probably a paid article. And also a great way to create a bogus reason to visit a chiropractor. WaPo should DEFINITELY be more picky on what it puts under it’s name though. Paid or not, people associate it with them and they look like idiots and cranks.
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I never thought it might be a paid piece. I didn’t think WaPo did that kind of thing but now that I think about it, it is certainly possible. Your last sentence is the most important, though, and is very true. Publishing things like this undermines their credibility, and in this climate where politicians are screaming “fake news” whenever even legitimate stories point out the garbage they’re doing, no news organization can afford to have its credibility questioned by nonsense like this story was.
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Maybe it’s a form of devolution… no, not the horns, the Washington Post.
The Washington Post and New York Times were two sources that I thought were reliable and respectable. Disappointing, for sure.
That’s why I got so irritated by that item. I really thought Washington Post was better than this. It doesn’t take much of this kind of thing to wreck a reputation
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