Fear Mongering in the NYT: Does Wearable Tech Cause Cancer?

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Mar 19, 2015
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Tl;dr: There is zero direct evidence that wearable tech causes cancer. The indirect evidence ain’t too good, either.

I suppose it’s a natural human reaction to worry a bit when some new technology is announced. Will it hurt privacy rights? How will it affect the way people interact?

Will it give people cancer?

Of course, that last one will give you a frisson of fear, an unconscious and reflexive chill that bites the back of your brain before a more rational reaction can kick in.

The last time this happened was with cellphones, which we’ll get to in a moment. But with Apple’s announcement of its new watch, it’s not surprising at all that people might be concerned over any possible health impacts.

What does surprise me is that the New York Times would publish an article that is basically little more than fear mongering about it. The article, written by Nick Bilton, uses classic pseudoscience techniques: speculation based on insignificant evidence, wordplay to make things sound worse than they are, and relying on an “expert” who is anything but.

Let’s be clear: There is no direct evidence wearable tech will cause health problems like cancer. None. Bilton admits that pretty much up front, but then goes on to speculate based on health concerns over cellphones, and that’s where the article goes off the rails.

Bilton plays up a study released in 2011 by the World Health Organization, which looked into any possible connection between cellphone used and brain tumors. The first and foremost thing you need to keep in mind is that no definitive connection was found. There was some, very slight, evidence that there might be a connection, but statistically speaking it was indistinguishable from there being no connection at all.

Despite this, the WHO put cellphones on its list of potentially harmful products, specifically Group 2B: possible carcinogens. Why? Because while they couldn’t prove a connection between cellphone use and brain tumors, they couldn’t rule it out either. Hence “possible” carcinogen.

Note: Other Group 2B substances include pickled vegetables and coffee. So there you go.

Bilton cites this study, but says

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.”)

Note he uses the word “hedged,” thus placing doubt into the reader’s mind. But he doesn’t include the necessary detail that no link was actually found. He also mentions a Swedish research study that seemed to show a connection, but as noted medical skeptic Orac points out, that’s the only study out of a great number that has seemed to see a connection. A lot of other studies don’t show a connection at all (here’s a great synopsis at the Mayo Clinic site). I’m not saying the Swedish study is wrong, but it seems odd that no one else has ever found a statistically significant connection.

Bilton talked to the leader of that study, which is fine. He didn’t talk to any researchers who found no connection, though.

As another expert, Bilton talked to Joe Mercola. My jaw dropped when I read that. Let me be very clear here: Mercola is a quack. You can read about his background at Quackwatch, but a good thing to note is that in 2005 the Food and Drug Administration ordered him to stop making illegal claims about the “alternative medicine” Mercola sells through his website. It sent a second order in 2006. And another in 2011.

Mercola is anti-vax. He’s been a bully about it, too. He promoted and sponsored an anti-vax ad in Times Square a few years ago. But he has very basic misunderstandings about how vaccines work. He promotes the nonsense that is homeopathy.

More to the point, Mercola has also written a great many articles playing up the dangers of cellphones and—shocker—sells products to minimize your exposure to cellphone radiation.

Bilton going to him as an expert on health is like going to Ken Ham as an expert on evolutionary biology.

I was rather surprised to see that Mercola didn’t immediately latch on to the idea that wearable tech is dangerous (though I’m sure, given time, he’ll be selling products to counteract its effects), but he does say:

“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 [due to radiation from 3G connections].

Except, as I’ve pointed out, no real connection has ever been found. Sanity check: If the connection were as strong as Mercola and others claim, it should scream out in real-world studies; hundreds of millions of people use cellphones. That’s a big sample size. Yet the incidence of brain cancers hasn’t risen.

The obvious conclusion from all this is that cellphones are not a risk here, and so extrapolating to wearable tech is completely groundless.

One more note: The very first paragraph of Bilton’s article recalls when doctors promoted cigarettes in the past. That is a classic pseudoscience technique: poisoning the well against science right away, trying to foment distrust of doctors and medicine. That’s not just bad writing; it’s downright irresponsible.

I expect this kind of thing from rags like the Daily Mail or other fact-free tabloids, but from the New York Times? Wow.

Update, March 19, 2015, at 20:20 UTC: After a large outcry about this, the New York Times ombudsman published an article saying that Bilton's article "needed much more vetting." Bilton is quoted in the piece defending his article, but in my opinion is doubling down on what he wrote. I don't see anything in what he said that changes what I wrote here.