Nutty Stories Don’t Seem Nutty to the Unprepared

Hobbes famously observed that reason is a spy for the passions (“the Thoughts, are to the Desires, as Scouts, and Spies, to range abroad, and find the way to the things Desired”). Whatever else one may think of Hobbes, in this he was, sadly, too often correct.

So when one reads a story that battens on worries about technology, it’s tempting to believe it might be true.  One example is a recent Washington Post story reporting that ‘Horns’ are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests. (Even good papers – and the Post is a good paper – sometimes go wrong.)

As it turns out, the report that cell phone use is leading to changes in the shape of users’ skulls is bunk.

Beth Mole at Ars Technica explains in Debunked: The absurd story about smartphones causing kids to sprout horns

The Post’s story was primarily based on a study published back in February 2018 by two Australian researchers. It earned fresh attention last week after being mentioned in a BBC feature on how modern life is supposedly transforming the human skeleton. The study was published in Nature’s open source journal Scientific Reports, which is supposedly peer-reviewed. But the study has significant limitations and flaws, and the Post breezed over them for a sensationalized story.

Perhaps the most striking problems are that the study makes no mention of horns and does not include any data whatsoever on mobile device 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.

Last, it appears that the study’s lead author—David Shahar, a chiropractor and biomechanics researcher at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland—has a financial incentive to convince people that their modern lifestyles are deforming their skeletons; Shahar goes by the name Dr. Posture online and has developed devices and techniques to prevent such posture problems. At the time of writing this, the Dr. Posture Thoracic Pillow was currently unavailable on Amazon, though.

Smart people sometimes fall – seemingly want to fall – for claims that turn out to be sketchy.  Most people are sharp; they go awry for reasons other than intelligence.

Some solutions work better than others. Proofreading doesn’t inoculate readers, because mere textual correction is a lower-order task.  Fact-checking sometimes works, but not so well against those with a strong bias.  In the end, it’s a different kind of fact-checking, aggressively applied, that has the best chance of long-term success.  See Fact-Checking is an Active, Ongoing Effort.

That kind of fact-checking rests on a perspective, a reasoned editorial view, a reliable paradigm.

Communities are susceptible of junk science, junk economics, and junk policies because they’ve not embraced a useful model by which they may soundly evaluate others’ claims.

We don’t teach models like that so often and so well as we should.

That lack leaves us reading – and some even needlessly worrying – that our children are growing horns.

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