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You might have seen this story circulating on social media…but we’re here to let you know that children are NOT growing horns because they use cellphones. This is a great opportunity to learn from what can happen when both peer review and science journalism go wrong!

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Go to to learn more. [♩INTRO]. This week in science news, we are required to inform you that despite what you might have heard, kids these days are not growing literal horns on the back of their heads because of their cell phones.

Yes. I am also somewhat amazed that this is something that needs to be said, but here we's 2019. You may have seen this making the rounds on social media or even reported by generally trustworthy news outlets.

But… it's pretty much garbage from beginning to end. The only good news about this horn hullabaloo is that it's an excellent opportunity to marvel at, and even learn from, what can happen when both peer review and science journalism go… awry. In case you missed it, which, apparently lots of the people in this room did, last week the Washington Post published a story based on a BBC story which in turn was based in part on a 2018 study that claimed that cell phone use is causing increasing numbers of young people to grow protrusions of bone at the base of their skulls.

The Post and some Australian media outlets very responsibly called these protrusions “horns,” and so of course, the story was quickly picked up around the world. It was debunked almost as quickly by experts on other science news websites and Twitter, which is good. Although, of course, it would've been better if we hadn't ended up being written about in the first place.

Here's the gist. The study did find little spurs of bone at the base of the skull, known as external occipital protuberances or EOPs, in some of the people that were studied. Not, like, devil horns growing out of your forehead.

Just tiny little nubbins near where your skull meets your spine. These nubbins, by the way, aren't unheard of. They're a well-documented phenomenon throughout human history, and archaeologists say that they've never seen any reason to believe having enlarged EOPs was associated with any habitual activity.

Anyway, the researchers in this study described enlarged EOPs, defined as at least ten millimeters long, in some x-rayed patients in a sample of 1200 18-to-86-year-olds. If you're thinking this is super vague, it's because it was. Unfortunately, some is the best number we can give you.

Because the paper literally doesn't report the actual number. We don't know how many of those 1200 people had these weird bony skull growths. There is a figure in the paper that theoretically shows how many people of each gender and age group had EOPs, but that figure doesn't match the findings as they were written in the paper.

The text says that males had over five times as many enlarged EOPs as females, but the figure actually suggests that in the youngest horn-growing group, women had more. Look, we're not in the scientific publishing business, but there are a few steps that this paper should have gone through before it reached our eyeballs, or those of the press. Specifically, it would have been read by other scientists in the field.

This paper appeared in the journal Scientific Reports, which is published by the same group that's behind the leading journal Nature. And it's a peer-reviewed journal, meaning that papers in it have to be sent out for other scientists to look over and evaluate before they are accepted and published. But something clearly went wrong, because, in the opinions of experts who've written about this paper, there were some pretty glaring omissions and oversights.

Like the results in the figures not matching what the paper's text says about them! The other problem, though, was how the paper was reported in the media. Of course there was the stuff about calling the protrusions “horns,” which plays on fears about “kids these days” by making us imagine their newfangled, already-demonized tech turning them into... literal demons.

But there was also the fact that many of the headlines referenced the cell phone-horn link as if that connection had actually been shown by the findings in the study. And it wasn't. The researchers didn't even look at phone use at all!

They only looked at x-rays showing neck posture and the spurs. Then, they cited previous research showing that men use handheld devices for longer periods of time than women, and used that as a springboard for speculation. They suggested a connection between cell phone use, bad posture, and the greater changes to the skeletons of male subjects than female ones that they supposedly saw.

But their data showed nothing of the sort. The peer reviewers might have had opinions to offer on this sort of unfounded speculation. But even if they didn't consider it worth flagging, science journalists probably should've known better than to report on the scientists' speculation on what the findings might mean as if it were fact.

As we point out all the time, correlation is not causation. Just because two things follow a similar trend doesn't mean that one is causing the other. Just because young men might use phones more often and also have more enlarged EOPs, doesn't mean phones are causing bone growths.

And in this case, even the correlation is up for debate, since there were flaws in the figures reporting the data. All of this to say, those of us who consume science news, as well those of us who write and make it, should have a good sense of what sketchy science looks like. “Correlation does not equal causation” is a great rule to live by, but it's just one item on a much longer list of pretty easy things to look for, for example... How many participants were there, and was there a control group?

Was the study done in mice or other research animals, and if so, are the potential implications for human beings overstated? Where was the study published, and has anyone been able to reproduce its results? Do the authors have any conflicts of interest that might cause them to draw conclusions that aren't entirely accurate?

Is the story about what the researchers actually found, or is it about what those findings might maybe someday mean or do? And who's reporting it -- is this news outlet trustworthy? To the Washington Post's credit, they've updated their article to reflect some of the problems with the study, as well as possible conflicts of interest on the part of the study's authors.

The headline still has the word “horns,” though. So, we're still at that place. And the journal itself has said they're going to give the paper a closer look.

Asking these questions can help us not take these crazy headlines at face value. Because obviously we love science! It's powerful and wacky and mind-blowing.

But when wild, unbelievable things like this turn out to be spurious, that sets the stage for people to not believe scientists when something really important is at stake. So when a headline makes claims about humans growing horns or finding life on Mars, it's worth taking a second to look at exactly what's going on before you retweet it. Phones aren't really changing our skeletons, but science and tech do shape our lives in very real ways.

And if you'd like to learn more about how technology is changing the future, you might like the documentaries on CuriosityStream. CuriosityStream is a subscription streaming service that offers over 2,400 documentaries and non­fiction titles, including exclusive originals. For example, you might like the original documentary “Dream the Future”.

It's all about what life will be like in the year 2050 thanks to new technologies, from healthcare to our homes and cities. And it's hosted by Sigourney Weaver, so that's fun! You can get unlimited access to this and everything else on CuriosityStream starting at just $2.99 a month.

And for SciShow viewers, the first 31 days are completely free if you sign up at and use the promo code SciShow during the sign-up process. And by checking it out, you're also supporting us. So, thanks! [♩OUTRO].