“[Relevant experts] are baffled” headlines annoy me primarily because it’s usually untrue, but also because relative bafflement is irrelevant to the information. “X found. Isn’t that neat? Oh and by the way, experts are baffled.”
It seems a bit superfluous. Are experts baffled just because a headline says they are? Are all experts baffled because the one expert the journalist might (big “might” – these kinds of stories can lack a certain, what’s that called? oh yes, fact checking process) have asked is baffled?
This week the “baffled” headline making the rounds, indicating to me that it’s a slow news week, is about a woman in China who has grown an uncommon, though not unheard of, “horn” on her forehead.
The remarkable detail seems entirely to be the placement of the growth. If it had grown on any other part of her, even most other parts of her face, I doubt we’d have seen a news story about it. It seems like cultural imagery of devils and animals having horns in this location (on either side of the forehead) has predisposed the media’s interest. Just look at the headline of this news report, which states:
Chinese grandmother grows ‘devil’ horns, family now getting worried.
An elderly Chinese woman has shocked friends and family by growing a devil-like horn from the top of her head.
Imagine if it had been one horn in the middle – “Unicorn woman baffles doctors!”
Odd medical condition to worry people about? Check. Unicorns? Check. [Dusts off hands.]
No apparent effort was made to get details – how long has the horn been growing? Has it grown recently (i.e., will it continue to get even bigger)? Is she seeking medical treatment? How common are these horns? Why should we find it interesting? What is the context for this story?
I think I hit the key issue here. Many of these “strange thing found, experts baffled” stories lack any sort of context. In the stories I found, guess how many experts (in this case I suppose that would be dermatologists, reconstructive surgeons, etc) were quoted for any kind of explanation whatsoever. Did you guess more than zero? You would be wrong.
In any case, doctors certainly aren’t baffled as this article claims. Within the same article, they provide the explanation for the growth! The cutaneous horn is a kind of tumor that is usually not malignant. It’s an excessive growth of keratin cells, usually in elderly people who have been exposed to a lot of sunlight (for example, people who work in outside fields for most of their lives). Other thoughts are that the growths may be linked to radiation exposure, HPV, or scarring. Yet doctors are “baffled” despite having access to the very same explanation provided in that media story?
Doctors, though they aren’t sure of the cause, know what these growths are and how to treat them. Take this woman for example: A woman in Africa had a similar horn growing out of the side of her head. She covered it up with a wig until it was eventually removed (see the link for pictures of the horn and the area after surgical removal).
Yes, it is odd that the growth is that large, but it is not unheard of and the sub-headline “A 101-year-old woman in China has baffled doctors after growing a huge goat-like horn on her forehead.” reads as meaningless words strung together. Really, a 101 year-old woman developed what is probably a cutaneous horn, a rare and interesting condition that resembles the kind of horns that are typically seen on other animals.
Rather than stifling any sort of curiosity or discussion by disengaging with sentences like the above, I wish more journalists (and editors) would seize the opportunity to incite healthy curiosity and scientific discussion among the general public by presenting what it is we do/don’t know and how this information is interesting/relevant. Instead we get confusing headlines that mistakenly claim that this woman has “sprouted a goat horn“, that her family is worried (in the context of it being a “devil” horn), or that experts are “baffled” at this condition. There was nothing within the body of these stories to support such statements.
I understand the concept of catchy headlines, but the accompanying stories about weird medical foibles tend to provide no more depth than the headlines’ shallow assumptions. Journalists can, and should, do better.