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Horns! Have we reached a new era in skeptical science journalism? I hope so.

Pointing us to this news article from Aylin Woodward, “No, we’re probably not growing horns from our heads because of our cellphone use — here’s the real science,” Jordan Anaya writes:

I haven’t looked into it, but seems like your basic terrible study with an attention grabbing headline. Pretty much just mention cell phone use and you can’t get the media to cover anything even if your study had nothing to do with cell phones.

Anaya was reacting to this credulous headline from the Washington Post: “Horns are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests.”

But I take a more positive view of this episode—not on the silly study, but on the way it was reported. Sure, the Washington Post and some other media outlets got conned, but lots of other reports were skeptical.

For example, Woodward’s story begins:

– A scientific study linked cellphone use to hornlike protuberances on the back of millennials’ skulls.
– But some members of the academic community have erupted in protest, saying the study is flawed.
– One expert said the study did not provide an adequate table of results to back up the horn claim.
– Over the past two decades, studies have looked into potential links between cellphone use and health problems like screen addiction and increased risk of cancer, but such links have not been verified.

No messing around here. A clear focus on evidence, or the lack thereof.

It’s great to see a journalist just rip into this kind of thing. I used to say that junk research can go far in the scientific establishment and the news media when it has no active opposition. Now it seems that many journalists are willing to take that oppositional role. Maybe they’re annoyed at being played for fools by celebrity scientists and their public relations departments.

P.S. The next day, Anaya sent along this update, saying, “it looks like that horns study was just a scam to sell some pillows.”

I have no idea. Maybe a scam, maybe the horns guy legitimately believes it. You know what they say: If you want to fool other people, it’s best to first fool yourself.

Regarding my point about active opposition, Anaya adds:

They wanted the media to cover their results so that they could sell pillows, but not get so much publicity that people actually looked into their papers.

Again, I have no idea if the goal here was to make money by selling pillows, or if they honestly think they’ve discovered something important and the pillow-money is just lagniappe.

P.P.S. Thanks to Diana Senechal for the above picture of a skeptical cat.

23 Comments

  1. Shannon Brownlee, the author of Overtreated, is one of the best medical journalists I have come across. Sheer talent.
    https://twitter.com/ShannonBrownlee

    I am in awe of the work she undertook. It would be a treat if she posted an essay here. She welcomes commentaries from statisticians.

  2. elias says:

    ” Sure, the Washington Post and some other media outlets got conned”

    ….No, the WashPost editors were simply more interested in a flashy headline to spice up that day’s newspaper edition.

    Facts are often secondary to the daily news media sausage-making & marketing strategy.

  3. Beatrice Pascal says:

    – A scientific study linked cellphone use to hornlike protuberances on the back of millennials’ skulls.
    – But some members of the academic community have erupted in protest, saying the study is flawed.
    – One expert said the study did not provide an adequate table of results to back up the horn claim.
    – Over the past two decades, studies have looked into potential links between cellphone use and health problems like screen addiction and increased risk of cancer, but such links have not been verified.
    A very important question on the cusp of scientific research and public policy involves whether or not the radiation emitted by cell phones or cell phone towers has adverse health effects. Many jurisdictions in my region are urging their local representatives to “ban G5 towers.” There are related issues regarding cell phones – is the frequency of tumors on the side you use your cell phone greater than other side? I have seen studies that say yes. There are dozens of inter-related questions, primarily involving does pressing radioactive device to your ear increase risk of tumors? all those people who put ear phones in cell phone do it partly to minimize risk of brain tumor, right?
    but this post seems to ignore the massive quantity of data re: cell phones and glioblastomas and focus on cell phones and adolescence-onset adverse osteopathic effects? you call yourself a bayesian? harrumph. this is so pathlogically biased in favor of the pharmaceutical-petrochemical-pseudo-regulatory (FDA/CDC/EPA/NIH/et cetera ad nauseum ad infinitum)
    this is so biased i am speechless. i guess that is all i have left to say. i cannot believe the most prominent bayesian on the planet pretends the cell phone/adverse health debate is about the risk of abnormal bone development in adolescents when it is about glioblastomas from radioactive device pressed to ear and leukemia from cell phone towers.

  4. Nick Adams says:

    It’s actually pretty simple biophysics. Electromagnetic radiation with a frequency above the visible spectrum (UV, x-rays, gamma radiation) can damage DNA and hence cause cancer. Lower frequency electromagnetic radiation (visible light, microwaves, radio waves) can’t. I am bemused how people go looking for dubious carcinogens while happily ignoring proven ones (sun exposure, tobacco, alcohol).

    • Well, what is ‘dubious’ to one expert and consumer may not be ‘dubious’ to another expert and consumer. I think there is such a thing as safe sun exposure.

      • Nick Adams says:

        I mean dubious as in lacking evidential support. In the medical evidence hierarchy, expert opinion (when not based on evidence) is right down near the bottom.
        Of course there is a level of sun exposure that is relatively safe otherwise we would all have skin cancer. However, I would point out that the incidence of skin cancer in the US is about 1 per 200 head of population per year.

    • The idea that sub-ionizing radiation can’t cause DNA damage and therefore can’t cause cancer is based on oversimplified physics.

      non-ionizing radiation may not be able to cause mutations directly, but it could certainly have some resonance with some mode of vibration in an enzyme that disables that enzyme from doing its work. That enzyme could be in charge of DNA repair, or degrading a commonly found cancer causing metabolites, etc.

        • There’s no need for confusion or snark… drinking high proof alcohol doesn’t ionize your DNA either, but there’s decent evidence it can cause throat cancer. There’s nothing that says the only way for something to cause cancer is for that thing to directly ionize your DNA. In fact, most carcinogens probably don’t directly cause cancer by ionizing your DNA. A major cause of cancer might well be the immune system dumping highly oxidative chemicals on damaged tissue during inflammation processes. There’s nothing that says you can’t damage tissue with microwaves so that immune responses occur, in fact we know for a fact that you can cook tissue with microwaves. Fortunately phones don’t directly cook tissue, but your statement about ionizing vs non-ionizing radiation seems to be a “proof” that it would somehow violate “physics” for microwave radiation to cause cancer… It isn’t anything like such a proof. It is proof that one *particular* mechanism isn’t possible.

          BTW I have no reason to believe that microwaves do cause cancer, I just know that cancer is more complicated than “it’s only caused by ionization of DNA”.

          • Nick Adams says:

            I’m reminded of the Joe Jackson song.
            Sure, you can postulate a mechanism whereby sub-ionising radiation causes cancer. You can also worry about under-arm deodorant, household cleaning products, glyphosate, smoked meats and any number of other things. Me, I’m going to worry about the carcinogens for which some sort of reasonable evidence exists.

            • Sure, but dismissing it as “impossible” is not right either. If there is some evidence out there, but we have a proof of impossibility without violating well studied laws of physics, then we can ignore the evidence pretty safely. But radio emissions causing cancer doesn’t need to violate any laws of physics at all… And cancer biologists are learning more and more about how cancer can come about through various mechanisms like failure of enzymes to do their job in certain contexts etc.

              Last I remember, I think there’s probably decent evidence that Roundup causes cancer, but that it’s not the glyphosate it’s the other additive chemicals… People were going around saying they’d given pure glyphosate to cancer susceptible rats in huge quantities and they didn’t get cancer, so this proves Roundup doesn’t cause cancer…

              no, it proves glyphosate probably doesn’t cause cancer, but Roundup is a whole mix of other stuff too, specially designed to break down cell membranes/walls and deliver the glyphosate to the interior of the cells.

              Whether that’s even true isn’t the point, the point is there’s a tendency to use science like a club where people say “we’ve proven X” when it’s not even remotely true. Huge quantities of what’s on this blog is about how “we’ve proven X” is wrong all the time.

  5. Beatrice Pascal says:

    DLakeland: A major cause of cancer might well be the immune system dumping highly oxidative chemicals on damaged tissue during inflammation processes.
    I have come to a similar conclusion in my decades of keyboard research on “environmental causes of cancer” a la rachel carson silent spring.
    https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/gene/BRCA1
    The BRCA1 gene provides instructions for making a protein that acts as a tumor suppressor. Tumor suppressor proteins help prevent cells from growing and dividing too rapidly or in an uncontrolled way. The BRCA1 protein is involved in repairing damaged DNA.

    A genetic susceptibility to cancer in general probably involves mutations to genes that help the body get rid of heavy metals, repair DNA damaged by oxidative stress, reduce inflammation, etc. the more we learn about the role of genes in cancer, the more horrified we should be at the way we have allowed our lives to be so carcinogenic.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15520196

    • Although there’s plenty of reason to believe that cancer is caused by lots of stuff, not just ionizing radiation like x-rays and alpha particles and things from nuclear events… microwave radiation has I think relatively little evidence, and lots of people have been exposed to a lot of it. So, while I agree that it *could* I don’t think by any means it’s been shown or proven or even strongly suggested that it does.

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