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The New York Times' smartwatch cancer article is bad, and they should feel bad

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Cram it, Bilton

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Could your smartwatch be GIVING YOU CANCER? That's the claim made by a new article in The New York Times by Nick Bilton, originally titled "Could wearable computers be as harmful as cigarettes?" Editors have already changed the headline to the more anodyne "The health concerns in wearable tech" in the face of substantial criticism, but the problems with the piece go much deeper than a bad headline.

Bilton tackles an interesting and important question: could smartwatches be raising your risk of cancer? There are decades of research that could speak to the question, since all the relevant radiation is also emitted by cell phones. Unfortunately, Bilton ignores almost all of it, kicking the piece off by comparing the new Apple Watch to smoking cigarettes. Once upon a time, we didn't know they were bad! Perhaps there are other things we don't know...

It's astounding that Mercola is being quoted as a health expert by The New York Times

What follows is a spectacularly ungenerous reading of the scientific literature. Bilton quotes a single qualified physician before moving on to an osteopathic physician named Dr. Joseph Mercola who "focuses on alternative medicine." Mercola has been outspoken on the link between cell phones and cancer, occasionally as a guest on the Dr. Oz show, and has a lucrative side business selling homeopathic products on his website, Mercola.com. He has been the subject of four separate letters from the FDA for mislabeling products or promising health benefits that are not supported by the medical literature. The fact that he's being quoted as a health expert by The New York Times is astounding, as some have already noted.

But what about the actual science? Bilton's strongest evidence comes from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which announced in 2011 that it considered cell phones as "possibly carcinogenic to humans." Bilton introduces the IARC announcement as "the most definitive and arguably unbiased results in this area." This is somewhat misleading! To start with, it's not really a scientific result — the IARC just surveyed the available literature and decided it didn't rule out the possibility of carcinogenic effects.

It's the closest anyone's come to claiming a link between cancer and cell phone exposure, but it's far from indisputable, a fact the authors freely admit. A footnote to the announcement (which Bilton omits) explains that the ruling is based on limited evidence and that "chance, bias, or confounding could not be ruled out with reasonable confidence." It also has its share of detractors. Even with those caveats, the announcement still met with a scathing response published in The Journal of the National Cancer Institute, pointing out acknowledged weaknesses in the IARC's sources.

"Chance, bias, or confounding could not be ruled out with reasonable confidence."

That's not the last word on the topic, by any means. There's never a last word in science! But alongside the IARC finding, there are lots of studies that find no correlation whatsoever. Bilton doesn't like the most comprehensive study because of its telecom links, but it's easy to rattle off a bunch more. Here's one. Here's another. Here's a third. None of them found any link between cell phone use and cancer. People have been fear-mongering over cell phone radiation for decades, and scientists have been studying it for just as long. Sometimes an association does pop up, but scientists argue over what exactly it means. Each study is happy to acknowledge its limits, and none of them pretends to be the final word on the issue, but then that's how science works.

"To date, there is no evidence from studies of cells, animals, or humans that radiofrequency energy can cause cancer."

So what does the consensus say? The National Cancer Institute is skeptical: "To date, there is no evidence from studies of cells, animals, or humans that radiofrequency energy can cause cancer." The Institute has an even-handed rundown of the current research, and it's hard to come away from it thinking there's any real evidence for cancer risk. The World Health Organization also has a good summary, which mentions the IARC result, but contains the following crucial phrase: "to date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use."

But...it's possible, right? Sure! A cancer link is theoretically plausible, and lots of people use cell phones, so it's the kind of thing scientists will keep looking at very, very closely. They haven't found anything solid yet, but you never know. It's an in-joke in the science world that nearly every study ends with "more research required" — they're all written by researchers, after all — but in this case, it seems to be the only part of the study Bilton read. More research is required! It's still possible!

Also, this homeopath thinks you should use a hands-free headset.

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