Again, it is the headlines. The BBC headline says https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-49157343 “Ear tickling therapy could help thwart ageing.” Of course, there are a few “scare quotes” in the headline so that the eagle-eyed person can spot the fact that the writer is not convinced and is maybe aware that there are problems with the research.
First, there were only 29 people in the experiment. That’s not enough to justify those conclusions. Second, their mood improved, and they were sleeping better. But there is no evidence as to why. Maybe just taking part in an experiment each day made their life more interesting and that’s why they felt better. In all research we think of external factors that might have caused the outcome, other than the experimental input, in this case “tickling”.
I asked Professor Allan House, who has studied the connection between physical illness and psychological problems as a clinician and professor at the University of Leeds. He told me, “Heart rate variability is indeed a risk for heart disease, so it’s an interesting marker for people who might benefit from preventive treatment. But you are right, the studies would have been better done with larger numbers and a “sham” or “dummy” treatment to cover the possibility of a placebo effect leading to an increased sense of wellbeing. However, these aren’t really serious criticisms; the report is of preliminary studies the main aim of which is to test whether there is any hint that the technology works at all.” He added that the outcome was interesting, but absolutely not supporting the headline. “What’s dismaying is the “greatest breakthrough since yesterday” way in which the study is reported. Apart from the uncertainty about whether this will lead to any useful treatment, it is of course absurd to suggest stimulation of the earlobe could stop people ageing.” Professor House commented more generally “We badly need a more scientifically-informed public, as the anti-vaxx movement shows us, and this sort of silly misleading journalism does nothing to help.”
So why does the BBC publish this sort of thing? You don’t expect the reporters any more to be as well informed about health care as they were in the past. So, they don’t ask all the right questions. They make things up that don’t get challenged.
It’s about news values. What gets reported has been known for decades to be related to a range of issues such as unexpectedness. The measure is whether they provide an element of entertainment. It is not meant to improve your understanding of anything.
If they claim they are tickling ears in Leeds to make people stay young for longer, it doesn’t really bother me. People rub cream on their face for the same effect and we don’t take offense at those claims. But when this school of reporting starts to make entertaining and unexpected but unjustified claims about dementia, that is straying into moral territory that harms real people and should be stopped.
So, if I let any stories like this one about “thwarting ageing” go by, where will it end? I don’t think it is fair for public broadcasters to indulge in this sort of thing. The Bible (a great book, but I don't often quote it), describes in 2 Timothy 4; 3-4 how "people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths". Take heed!