That Study Showing Kids Sprouting Horns is Probably Bogus

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Beth Mole reminds us that scientific studies are more nuanced than a sensationalized news story. The Washington Post wrote about a study showing kids sprouting horns because of bad posture, and phones were to blame. But it’s probably bogus.

Perhaps the most striking problems are that the study makes no mention of horns and does not include any data whatsoever on mobile devices usage by its participants who, according to the Post, are growing alleged horns. Also troubling is that the study authors don’t report much of the data, and some of the results blatantly conflict with each other.

Check It Out: That Study Showing Kids Sprouting Horns is Probably Bogus

That Study Showing Kids Sprouting Horns is Probably Bogus

3 Comments Add a comment

  1. wab95

    Andrew:

    This was fun. Where to begin. I’ll keep this short – ish.

    For starters, the cause of these projections is, by the authors’ admission, speculative. They reference ‘entheses’ which are the ligament or tendon attachment sites to bone, and that these sites are vulnerable to injury – as anyone whose ever suffered a sprain can attest.

    They state,

    “Thus, enthesophyte development may be an adaptive mechanism to further increase the surface area at the tendon/bone interface at sites enduring frequent tensile stress, with bone growth progression taking place in the direction of tensile stress acting on the bone at the point of insertion”. Enthesophytes, by the way, are ‘jagged projections’ of the bone cortex projecting into the attaching ligament – rather like a bone spur – and no, I’m not going there. In other words, these boney projections at the back of kids’ skulls ‘may be’ a result ligaments pulling at the back of the skull when the kid keeps their head tilting forward and down to look at their iPhones and iPads.

    Nowhere are horns mentioned, as the Ars Technica article points out – which is a good read for a more detailed breakdown of this study’s limitations.

    If you read the authors’ methodology section, it states that they reviewed 1200 lateral cervical spine X-rays (an X-ray of the neck and base of the skull taken from the side) obtained from chiropractors’ offices in people aged 18 – 86, although they don’t specify over what time period these were taken – let’s assume recently; and using a statistical analytical method called logistic regression found that they could predict the likelihood of these bony projections based on age and sex, with younger adult males being more likely to have these, and that based on their analysis, these projections were present in 33% of the general population.

    There’s more, including their reference to the eminent French surgeon and anthropologist Paul Broca, the subject of Carl Sagan’s ‘Broca’s Brain’( https://www.amazon.com/Brocas-Brain-Reflections-Romance-Science/dp/0345336895/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3LLPQ8Z16B7C3&keywords=broca%27s+brain+carl+sagan&qid=1561150175&s=gateway&sprefix=Broca%27s+%2Caps%2C124&sr=8-1 ) , but this should suffice.

    The authors have an observation, a bony anomaly, for which they have no proven explanation based on evidence, merely an opinion (I would not call it an hypothesis at this stage because, though testable, they never tested it to see if their opinion is correct).

    While logistic regression analysis is fine for predictive likelihood of an outcome in a data set, this is not how you would conduct a study on the prevalence of these bony projections in the general population. For one thing, they are examining only a population that is seeking relief for neck and spinal discomfort. This enriches this small population for potential anatomical anomalies. One would, at the very least, do this in a sample of the general population; or if using cases from a doctor’s office, compare them to controls – in this case, healthy controls not in a doctor’s office for neck and spinal pain.

    Third, given that they speculate young people are spending 4 – 5 hours looking at their smart phones, they’d need to compare said posture to other head bending activities that have been occurring in society for the past several generations, such as study in schools, sewing, microscopy, etc etc. Surely, these head-bendy activities should be horn-worthy, and if they’re not, then why not? Humans have been head-bent on any number of activities for hours on end since before the industrial revolution; and wither be no horns on heads? A head scratcher for sure.

    One could go on, but then, why? This is much ado about practically nothing; certainly nothing yet established or quantifiable, other than a reminder to mind one’s posture.

    Methinks this may, instead, be an unintended quasi academic prank at the expense of the media; humans sprouting horns from using their iPhones after all is no morality tale about the devil and his smartphone workshop. It’s just good old-fashioned bull.

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