Earlier this week, the New York Times chose to publish an article with the headline “Could wearable computers be as harmful as cigarettes?” (That was later toned down to “The Health Concerns in Wearable Tech,” apparently in response to the criticism generated by the article, though the original headline lives on in the article’s URL.) We’ll skip over the question of why a Style Section author was chosen to tackle a topic that was all about science, and turn to why so many have objected to this article. Many have written some good critiques (including one by Russell Brandom for The Verge), so I’ll just hit the high points.
The article tries to draw a connection between cigarettes and wearable technology. The point is that doctors used to endorse cigarettes, not knowing that they cause cancer. Maybe wearables also cause cancer, and we just don’t know it yet. At some level, that’s a possibility, but there’s practically no evidence to indicate that there’s any cause for concern, though there is an enormous body of work that indicates that there is no danger. The author points to the evidence that cellphone use causes brain tumors, and then makes the leap that smartwatches that also use cellphone technology could also cause cancer.
The problem with this is that the author takes a completely unbalanced and ill-informed view of the cellphone research. The scientific community generally accepts that there is no definitive evidence connecting cellphone emissions with cancer (unlike the widely-accepted carcinogenic effects of smoking tobacco). Instead, the author cites questionable sources, including a doctor who has been cited by the FDA for mislabeling products or making unsubstantiated health claims. The author also seized on a Center for Disease Control (CDC) report that concluded that “more research is needed,” implying that a possible link between cellphones and cancer remains unresolved. The fact is that almost all scientific study points to additional questions that need to be studied. The author completely misrepresented the results of the CDC report.
There’s always a risk when mainstream media attempts to cover a technical subject, but a publication with the stature of the New York Times should know better than to publish a piece as flawed and misleading as this one. And sadly, this is a bell that will be difficult for the Gray Lady to unring.