Ignorance Drowns Out Precaution

Ignorance Drowns Out Precaution

NY Times Tech Columnist Has Hands Slapped

March 20, 2015

The New York Times went into damage control mode yesterday after Nick Bilton, a tech columnist and a rising star at the newspaper, suggested that precaution is the best approach to the use of cell phones and wearable electronics.

No sooner had Bilton’s column hit print than Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ Public Editor, chastised Bilton for his naive analysis. (It was posted on the Web a day earlier.) Sullivan targeted the lack of “sophisticated evaluation of serious research.” His biggest blunder, according to many readers, was quoting Dr. Joe Mercola, an Internet health entrepreneur. It’s worth mentioning that Mercola is no technophobe. He talked to Bilton on a cell phone using a Bluetooth headset.

The original headline of the column had also fanned the flames of discontent: “Could Wearable Computers Be as Harmful as Cigarettes?” This was likely the work of an editor at the Times’ Styles section where it later appeared in print, with a new headline: “New Gadgets, New Health Worries.” It became “The Health Concerns of Wearable Tech” online. (We were reminded of Chris Ketcham’s feature in GQ five years ago. That headline, “Warning: Your Cell Phone May Be Hazardous to Your Health,” ran next to a picture of a pack of Marlboro’s and a flip cell phone.)

“Fear mongering,” complained a surgeon on Science Blogs; so did an astronomer on Slate. Why did the Times quote a “quack”? asked a blogger on Gawker. “Cram it, Bilton,” screamed The Verge.

Yes, there are many researchers Bilton might have quoted that would have been more rigorous than Mercola. And yes, comparing RF radiation, a “possible” carcinogen, to tobacco smoke, a known carcinogen, is guaranteed to cause an uproar. (No one seemed to notice that Bilton also cited advice from Sweden’s Lennart Hardell, who has published many peer-reviewed papers on cell phone cancer risks.)

What got lost in all the name-calling is Bilton’s clear message. “After researching this column, talking to experts and poring over dozens of scientific papers,” he wrote, “I have stopped holding my phone next to my head and instead use a headset.” And then he let a few drops of rain fall on the iWatch love parade. “[W]hen it comes to wearable computers, I’ll still buy the Apple Watch, but I won’t let it go anywhere near my head. And I definitely won’t let any children I know play with it for extended periods of time.”

The speed with which Sullivan threw Bilton under the bus was stunning. Compare it, for instance, to what happened last December when a Times-sponsored video exonerated power lines from the well-documented childhood leukemia risk based on the say of industry scientists (see our story). Many wanted her to take a hard look at that story; we were among them. She passed.

Sullivan had the good grace to allow Bilton to have his say in her column. Here’s part of what he told her:

“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.”

Bilton got it right. If his critics took the trouble to read the medical and scientific literature, as Bilton did, they might be more careful about offering their off-the-cuff health advice.