The New York Times and fear mongering about the Apple Watch and wearable tech

The New York Times Styles Section giveth. The New York Times Styles Section taketh away.

Last week, The NYT Styles Section published an excellent deconstruction of the pseudoscientific activities of Vani Hari, a.k.a. The Food Babe, by Courtney Rubin. Although skeptics might think that it was a tad too “balanced” (as did I), by and large we understand that this was the NYT Style section, and seeing a full-throated skeptical deconstruction of The Food Babe’s antics in such a venue is just not in the cards. That’s what I’m there for (not to mention other skeptics like Steve Novella), such as when I responded to Hari’s “rebuttal” to the NYT article.

This week, things are different. This week, the NYT Styles section has printed pseudoscience.

I’m referring to an article by Nick Bilton entitled The Health Concerns in Wearable Tech. It’s an article that’s so obviously designed to take advantage of the high level of media interest in the Apple Watch since Tim Cook announced it two weeks ago. I’d say it was click bait, except that, this being the Gray Lady and all, at least the editor resisted the temptation to slap too obvious a clickbait headline on it, but the article starts out in a way that makes its author’s intentions quite clear:

In 1946, a new advertising campaign appeared in magazines with a picture of a doctor in a lab coat holding a cigarette and the slogan, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” No, this wasn’t a spoof. Back then, doctors were not aware that smoking could cause cancer, heart disease and lung disease.

In a similar vein, some researchers and consumers are now asking whether wearable computers will be considered harmful in several decades’ time.

We have long suspected that cellphones, which give off low levels of radiation, could lead to brain tumors, cancer, disturbed blood rhythms and other health problems if held too close to the body for extended periods.

Yet here we are in 2015, with companies like Apple and Samsung encouraging us to buy gadgets that we should attach to our bodies all day long.

Got it? To Bilton, the Apple Watch and Samsung’s competitor smart watch are just like tobacco. No, not exactly. More specifically, to Bilton, assurances that the Apple Watch and Samsung’s smart watch are safe are like the assurances of physicians used in tobacco advertising used seven decades ago to falsely assure smokers that cigarettes were perfectly safe. It’s an old gambit beloved by cranks promoting a cell phone-cancer (or wifi-cancer) link. Bilton also stretches his facts a bit; back then many doctors did strongly suspect that smoking tobacco was not safe. Indeed, it was suspected as early as 1912 that cigarette smoke might be causing lung cancer. As I’ve discussed many times before, the Germans produced epidemiologic data in the 1930s and 1940s linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer. Around the time of those ads, it’s true that it wasn’t yet firmly established that smoking was strongly linked with lung cancer. That wouldn’t come until the 1950s, and it would still take a decade for the evidence to become undeniable to all but tobacco company shills. Indeed, most physicians seven decades ago didn’t accept the link, but it’s going a bit far to say that doctors “were not aware that smoking could cause cancer, heart disease, and lung disease.”

Be that as it may, the implication is clear and intentional: Cell phones and “wearable tech” are health hazards that, although some suspect them to be harmful, are just not yet widely recognized as health hazards yet. Sure, Bilton buries that assumption under JAQing off, but the message is very clear. Worse, he cites research that is largely discredited and certainly unconvincing to try to make his point. That’s not his worse sin (more on that later), but let’s look at what Bilton writes next first:

The most definitive and arguably unbiased results in this area come from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a panel within the World Health Organization that consisted of 31 scientists from 14 countries.

After dissecting dozens of peer-reviewed studies on cellphone safety, the panel concluded in 2011 that cellphones were “possibly carcinogenic” and that the devices could be as harmful as certain dry-cleaning chemicals and pesticides. (Note that the group hedged its findings with the word “possibly.”)

This is about as ignorant of the science (or disingenuous) as it gets. Thankfully, I covered this particular report in great detail when it was first released; so I don’t have to go into great detail. Basically, as I pointed out at the time, quoting David A. Savitz, a professor in the departments of epidemiology and obstetrics and gynecology at Brown University and a researcher on environmental exposures and health, who said, “With few exceptions, the studies directly addressing the issue [cell phones as a brain cancer risk] indicate the lack of association.” Moreover, all the “positive” studies come from one group, Lennart Hardell’s group in Sweden.

So what happened? Basically the IARC categorized cell phone radiation as a Category 2B carcinogen, which is by definition “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” It’s a list that, in addition to having chemicals like DDT on it, includes coffee, pickled vegetables, carrageenan, and carbon black. In any case, it’s clear that in making its determination the IARC relied on both on case control studies including Interphone, and the Swedish group of Hardell et al (the only group that consistently reports positive associations between cell phone use and cancer), and, as Lorne Trottier explained, the process by which the IARC made its evaluation was hopelessly flawed. It’s not a good study. Moreover data from Hardell’s group is suspect.

Nor are the other studies that Bilton lists. Guess which study he cites first? A 2007 study by Hardell’s group. However, the overwhelming evidence from other groups’ studies is that there is no detectable link between cell phone usage and brain cancer. Bilton recognizes that but does his best to portray it with as much fear, uncertainty, and doubt as he can. It’s a tour de force of spin:

There is, of course, antithetical research. But some of this was partly funded by cellphone companies or trade groups.

He even quotes a disclaimer in a negative study published in the BMJ that acknowledge that a “small to moderate increase” in cancer risk among heavy cellphone users could not be ruled out. That’s scientific language. Scientists have to acknowledge the limitations of any study they publish. If they don’t, peer reviewers make sure that they do. It doesn’t mean that there is a serious possibility being acknowledged that cell phone use might actually cause cancer. It’s just the usual cautious language scientists employ. Ditto the statement by the CDC cited by Bilton that “more research is needed before we know if using cell phones causes health effects.”

It’s as pure an example of not putting enough stock in the well-characterized basic science that tells us that radio waves do not have sufficient energy to break chemical bonds and directly cause mutations. Although I sometimes get into hot water for being critical of physicists who, seeming to operate from a Cancer Biology 101 understanding of carcinogenesis, declare carcinogenesis due to non-ionizing radiation to be impossible, it is nonetheless not incorrect to consider any link between cell phone radiation and human cancer to be highly implausible from a mechanistic standpoint based on physics. As I like to put it, it’s not homeopathy-grade implausible, but pretty damned implausible.

Now here’s where Bilton goes completely off the rails. After rhetorically asking “what does all this research tell the Apple faithful who want to rush out and buy an Apple Watch, or the Google and Windows fanatics who are eager to own an alternative smartwatch?” Bilton cites Joe Mercola:

Dr. Joseph Mercola, a physician who focuses on alternative medicine and has written extensively about the potential harmful effects of cellphones on the human body, said that as long as a wearable does not have a 3G connection built into it, the harmful effects are minimal, if any.

“The radiation really comes from the 3G connection on a cellphone, so devices like the Jawbone Up and Apple Watch should be O.K.,” Dr. Mercola said in a phone interview. “But if you’re buying a watch with a cellular chip built in, then you’ve got a cellphone attached to your wrist.” And that, he said, is a bad idea.

Not only does Joe Mercola have no special expertise in cell phones, cancer, or epidemiology (and proves it with his claim that cell phones are only a problem if they are using 3G bands; actually they’re not a problem using 3G or 4G LTE), but he’s a complete quack, whose quackery has been documented on this blog many times. He’s antivaccine. He’s also promoted Tullio Simoncini, a cancer quack who thinks all cancer is caused by a fungus, something that makes his being invoked as an authority on cell phones and cancer particularly risible. I mean, seriously. Can Bilton not even Google? If he did, he would have immediately seen links to articles like:

At least, these are the articles that came up when I did a quick Google search of Joe Mercola’s name. You get the idea. Even in the Style section, you’d think the editors wouldn’t want to cite a quack as any sort of authority in medicine. I mean, seriously. Bilton ought to be ashamed, and the editors of the NYT ought to be mortified. Not only does he recycle every dubious cell phone-cancer trope out there, but he couples that misinterpretation of existing scientific evidence with quoting a quack who sells supplements. Hardell, as bad as his studies have been and as biased in his views as he’s obviously become, is at least a legitimate epidemiologist. Mercola has no such qualifications or even anything slightly resembling any legitimate qualifications to be discussing epidemiology.

I suppose I should be more forgiving, as Bilton is a tech writer and this is the Style section. (Certainly it’s clear from this article that he has no business whatsoever writing about anything related to medicine.) I can’t be. It may be “just” the Style section, but it’s still the NYT.

In the meantime, no doubt Bilton’s defenders will label me a “shill” for the cellular industry or Apple. It’s true that I’m a happy Apple customer, complete with a MacBook Pro, iPhone, iPad, and iMac, but I bought all those with my own money. On the other hand, maybe Apple will give me a new Apple Watch for defending its honor.

Nahhh. That’s not how Apple rolls.