The Sciences

A Badly Flawed NYT Story Trumpets Cell Phone Health Dangers

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMar 18, 2015 4:43 PM

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[UPDATE:

See media reaction at bottom of this post. Also, be sure to read the correction at end of the NYT article and the response from the NYT public editor

.] I'm racing to meet a deadline, but this story in the New York Times is so dismaying I had to take a few minutes to call attention to it. The headline alone is a red flag: "Could Wearable Computers Be as Harmful as Cigarettes?" It gets worse:

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.

Who is "we"? The reporter, Nick Bilton (who covers technology), goes on to mention numerous studies, some which are ambiguous, but one that

concluded that talking on a mobile or cordless phone for extended periods could triple the risk of a certain kind of brain cancer.

The thrust of the discussion in the piece gives the impression that heavy frequent cell phone users are at risk of developing brain tumors. That would be mistaken, as the National Cancer Institute says on its website. Another expert source apparently missed by Bilton is the Mayo Clinic, which says:

Currently, there's no consensus about the degree of cancer risk — if any — posed by cellphone use.

Instead, for a story on the potential health risks of wearable electronic gadgets (such as the new Apple watch), the reporter turns to Joseph Mercola, an osteopath who is notorious for his many unsubstantiated medical claims, some of which have drawn a warning from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). The reader is not given this background information on Mercola, who is an integral part of the story after being introduced this way:

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.

How's that for unintended irony? And from a dubious source who has no authoritative standing whatsoever to comment on any health-related matters. The NYT reporter concludes:

After researching this column, talking to experts and poring over dozens of scientific papers, I have realized the dangers of cellphones when used for extended periods, and as a result I have stopped holding my phone next to my head and instead use a headset during phone calls.

Can somebody at the New York Times please give this technology reporter a refresher course on how to sniff out pseudo expert sources, how to assess the merits of a given study, and lastly, how to weigh scientific evidence? There's already enough problematic journalism on medical and health issues. Readers deserve better from an illustrious newspaper. UPDATE: Some folks have pointed out that the Times story appeared in the "Styles" section. My response:

Where a story gets slotted in a newspaper (or a website) is irrelevant in the digital age. The internet doesn't care. http://t.co/VqPxdSGkYE — keith kloor (@keithkloor) March 18, 2015

UPDATE: The headline for the online version of the story now reads: "The Health Concerns in Wearable Tech" UPDATE: Nice takedowns of the story here (Popular Science) and here (Wired), though the headline in the latter is off-putting. Gawker, like everyone, is dumfounded that Mercola is a primary source. The Verge, too, is astounded. Phil Plait's jaw dropped and Business Insider asks why the NYT is "relying on alternative-health practitioners?"

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