The researcher behind the smartphone “horns” study sells posture pillows

Smartphone slouch.
Smartphone slouch.
Image: Reuters/Russell Boyce
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Smartphones are a modern hypochondriac’s favorite scapegoat: They’ve been blamed for our trouble sleeping, socializing, and focusing. Recently, news coverage of a scientific study has suggested that craning to read a smartphone may even contribute to the growth of “horn-like” bone spurs on the base of the skull.

If you’re skeptical, you have good reason: Scientists and journalists have called out the study for its dubious methods, which examined x-rays for evidence of tilted necks and skull spurs. There’s plenty to dispute in the paper’s design and conclusions. But aside from the science itself, there’s another reason to question the paper’s conclusion: the lead author’s business ventures.

David Shahar, one of the study’s authors, is a chiropractor and biomechanics PhD. So when it came time to find the 1,200 participants for his research, he didn’t look far: Based on the data associated with the paper available on his university’s website, every one came through his own chiropractic practice in Australia. That detail isn’t in his paper, which only refers to participants chosen from a clinician’s database.

That clinician is Shahar, who, along with his spouse and business partner, treat what they call a “poor posture epidemic” with digital posture analyses and on-site x-rays. In an email to Quartz, Shahar declined to comment when asked directly if the participants were coming through his practice. Instead, he said that about half of the young adults in his “original research were asymptomatic participants who were recruited by another researcher for a different project,” but did not elaborate on their specific ages or number of these participants.

If you really wanted to get a look at the effects of smartphone use on neck health, you’d want data from the general population, not people who were already concerned about neck or back pain. The paper acknowledges that issue, and excludes any patients who reported severe neck pain. But it doesn’t state that the patients came from Shahar’s personal practice, who may have skewed the data because they explicitly sought help with their posture.

Shahar is also the creator of Dr. Posture, an online store that advertises information and products related to forward head posture. One section tells users how to “look and feel your best in three easy steps,” which include watching a video by Shahar, downloading at-home exercises, and sleeping with a Thoracic Pillow, which Shahar has trademarked and sold for $195.

Most scientific publications require researchers to disclose financial conflicts. Scientific Reports, the open-access, peer reviewed journal where Shahar’s work was published, is no exception. Its policy requires authors to report anything that could “directly undermine, or be perceived to undermine, the objectivity, integrity and value of a publication.” Shahar declared no competing interests.

When Quartz visited Dr. Posture on June 21 from the US, the “products” section was empty. The Australian link, however, shows the Thoracic Pillow is available for purchase. It seems possible Shahar could earn money from people buying products for postural troubles—the US product page was live as recently as 2016—or gain notoriety.

When asked about this conflict of interest, Shahar told Quartz that “I have been largely inactive in that front over the years of my research, and this research does not discuss any particularly related intervention methods.” Yet a section of the discussion section of the paper reads “the mitigation of poor postural habit through prevention intervention may be prudent.”

It’s important to understand whether and how technology could be changing our bodies. It’s also critical to pay attention to what motivates research into those questions and shapes data analysis. In this case, the study’s conclusion didn’t match its reported results—a bizarre fact that some news outlets and individuals picked up on.

Business ties don’t automatically bias a scientist’s conclusions. But they should always raise a red flag for technology users trying to make healthy decisions in a world prone to profitable, postural panic.