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

Yesterday, I laid a heapin’ helpin’ of not-so-Respectful Insolence on a hapless—not to mention clueless—tech writer who for some reason wrote an article for the New York Times Styles section. The writer, Nick Bilton, surely deserved it. His article served up a massive pile of fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about radiation from cell phones as a cause of cancer. His twist was to take advantage of the current hype over the recently announced Apple Watch to turn that FUD onto the Apple Watch and other gadgets that fall under the title of “wearable tech” using misinterpretations of studies common to cranks like Devra Davis, who is perhaps the foremost purveyor of the unproven and implausible claim that cell phone radiation causes brain cancer (not to mention all sorts of other illnesses). However, that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it is that Bilton cited über-quack Joe Mercola as a legitimate expert about cell phones and cancer.

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of criticism of the article besides mine. Phil Plait trashed it. Daniel Engber likens debunking Bilton’s piece to shooting fish in a barrel, while James Cook notes that Bilton cherry picked the most alarmist studies. Nick Stockton of WIRED correctly referred to the article as an “attack on science.” Andrew Maynard of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center was “baffled” by the nonsense in the article. P.Z. Myers referred to the article as “flaming paranoia” while Alexandra Ossola urges everyone just to calm down. Russell Brandom sarcastically retorted that “this homeopath thinks you should use a hands-free headset.” (He also says, “Cram it, Bilton.”)

It was a blood bath on the science blogs, with Nick Bilton and the NYT being the main targets. Again, Bilton deserved every sling and arrow fired his way. Seldom have I seen such a biased article lacking even a nuance of understanding of the relevant science.

It was so bad that complaints to the NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan resulted in a response, A Tech Column on Wearable Gadgets Draws Fire as ‘Pseudoscience.’ At the beginning of the article, Sullivan notes the complaints that she had received about Bilton’s misinterpretation of existing scientific studies, his relying on studies from the only group to have found positive associations between cell phone use and brain cancer, and, above all, his citing one of the most influential quacks in the U.S. as the only source whom he quoted directly. Bilton’s response to Sullivan was disingenuous, to say the least:

Many strenuously objected to the reliance on Dr. Joseph Mercola, questioning his research and qualifications on this topic.

I corresponded with Mr. Bilton and the Styles editor, Stuart Emmrich. Mr. Bilton, defending the column and its sources, mentioned other Times articles over the years that have raised questions and concerns on the same subject. On the use of Dr. Mercola, he told me that his contribution was a relatively small part of the column. “He is one view among a dozen studies, articles and reports I cite in the column,” he said. (However, I’ll note that Dr. Mercola is the only person directly quoted in the column.) He said that describing Dr. Mercola as an alternative practitioner should have alerted readers.

To which I respond: Nonsense! And: How is it that a tech writer doesn’t even think to Google his sources? As I documented yesterday, on the first page of Google results about Joe Mercola there are several articles (at least one by yours truly) documenting Joe Mercola’s selling and promotion of quackery, including antivaccine views (he works with the grande dame of the antivaccine movement, Barbara Loe Fisher), the rankest cancer quackery that claims that cancer is a fungus and it can be cured with baking soda, and he has numerous articles on his website claiming a link between cell phone radiation and cancer. In fact, I can’t believe I forgot that last point in my previous post, because Mercola sells bogus ferrite beads that he claims to protect the user from cell phone radiation.

Funny that Bilton didn’t mention that.

It’s also funny that, as Sullivan noted, Mercola is the only person quoted in Bilton’s column. Just referring to him as an “alternative practitioner” is nowhere near adequate to warn readers about the true depths of Joe Mercola’s quackery. Let’s just put it this way. Mercola is not qualified to speak on anything from a science-based perspective. He has completely turned to the dark side. Anyone who quotes him as an authority on anything other than making money selling supplements and ferrite beads to “shield” your brain from cell phone radiation has revealed a black hole of ignorance about medicine. Think about it. Seemingly the best source Bilton could come up with was Joe Mercola. Although Although Bilton doesn’t seem to realize it, if the best interview you can come up with is Joe frikkin’ Mercola, maybe you should rethink the whole endeavor!

Indeed, to call Mercola “one view” among many is disingenuous in the extreme, as is this:

Mr. Bilton also wrote to me: “The reality is, we still don’t know definitively the causes of cellphones and cancer, but I can tell you one thing, as a technology enthusiast myself, I approached this piece thinking all the research was bogus. But, as I noted in my column, after doing my own reporting on this topic, I’m no longer going to talk on my cellphone for long periods of time without a headset. And I will likely also keep my soon-to-be-born son away from cellphone use until his brain develops, as erring on the side of caution, until more research is done, seems to me to be the smart and intelligent approach to this issue.”

Yes, it’s the old “I was a skeptic!” gambit. Mr. Bilton swears up and down that he thought all the research was “bogus.” Amazing, then, how little it took to persuade him that there is a potential horrible danger from cell phone radiation and radiation from wearable tech that hasn’t been adequately studied. I call BS. It sounds to me as though he always had a tendency to believe the cell phone-cancer link. I mean, come on! He framed his entire article by starting out describing how the tobacco industry used physicians back in the 1940s to sell cigarettes and how it worked to suppress any evidence that smoking tobacco caused harm in the form of lung cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and other health issues. What does he think the reader is supposed to have taken away from that introduction and his multiple references to tobacco companies. He even invoked vague, dubious claims about how 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.” “Disturbed blood rhythms”? What the hell does that even mean?

Now here’s the hilarious part. The Styles editor, Stuart Emmrich, while defending the column, recognizes only one mistake made in this whole sorry affair:

“In this case, because Nick is our technology columnist, with a deep knowledge of the industry,” Mr. Emmrich said he felt the topic was appropriate for him to explore.

Mr. Emmrich told me that, in retrospect, he would have done something differently: “run it by our colleagues in Science, who have been helpful in the past, just to confirm our reporting was on solid ground and perhaps to more directly address, preemptively, the criticism I expected might come.”

Run it by some colleagues in the NYT Science section? What a wonderful idea! Why didn’t Emmrich do that? Instead, he trusted a tech writer with no discernable expertise in science, biology, or medicine and just published his uninformed ramblings stealing a page from cranks insinuating a “cover-up” of a cell phone-cancer link is akin to the well-documented campaign by tobacco companies over several decades to cover up the science showing that smoking causes cancer. The original title of the article was even Could Wearable Computers Be as Harmful as Cigarettes? As Sullivan noted, it is possible for someone without a serious science background to write effectively about scientific issues. This, however, was not one of these times.

I can only hope that Mr. Emmrich has learned a lesson. It’s clear from his responses that Nick Bilton has learned nothing. No wonder Gawker has referred to him as the new worst columnist at the NYT.