In Wednesday's New York Times, Nick Bilton, a Styles columnist who writes about technology as you might expect a Styles columnist to, makes a foray into science journalism, questioning if "wearable tech" could be harmful to our bodies—could wearable computers, like the AppleWatch (onsaleApril24atyournearestAppleStore) be as dangerous to us...as cigarettes?
As with most Bilton columns, the first response to the question posed is a deep and disappointed sigh. But something more sinister than tediousness lurks in this column. While Bilton cites evidence from the International Agency for Research on Cancer and a "longitudinal study conducted by a group of European researchers" that suggests a link between cellphone usage and cancer, one of his star sources is a man named Dr. Joseph Mercola, a Shorty Award-nominated physician of alternative medicine.
Mercola runs perhaps one the most-visited natural health sites on the web, and is a complete quack. According to Chicago Magazine, Mercola is anti-vaccine and pro-tanning bed (I know, it makes no sense). He sells tanning beds for $2,997 on his site, Mercola.com, which has been given an "F" by the Better Business Bureau. Still, the site rakes in about $7 million per year selling vitamins and miscellaneous snake-oil cures.
A doctor named David Gorski slams Mercola in Chicago Mag's article:
In the opinion of David Gorski, a doctor who runs a site similar to Barrett's (ScienceBasedMedicine.org), the problem is that Mercola either vastly exaggerates preliminary research or cherry-picks studies that bolster his point of view. Gorski believes that Mercola also ignores data that prove him wrong or pushes far beyond what is scientifically sound, using scare tactics to make his point. For example, his site includes an article by a California doctor titled "HIV Does Not Cause AIDS." Mercola posted a comment at the end of the article: "Exposure to steroids and the chemicals in our environment, the drugs used to treat AIDS, stress, and poor nutrition are possibly the real causes."
Gorski lists a litany of Mercola's beliefs that he says fly in the face of good science. "It's all there," says Gorski. "He's antivaccine. He has promoted [someone] who believes cancers are caused by fungus. He has promoted fear-mongering about shampoo. He digs up the hoary old myth that anti-perspirants containing aluminum cause breast cancer. Just this month he is pushing this nonsense that somehow recombinant bovine growth factor in milk causes breast cancer, something for which there's no evidence.
And yet, here is how Nick Bilton quotes him in the Times:
Dr. 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.
"The radiation really comes from the 3G connection on a cellphone, so devices like the Jawbone Up and Apple Watch should be O.K.," Dr. Mercola said in a phone interview. "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.
When you google Mercola, the third result for him is an article from quackwatch.org. His writings on his site are indeed prolific, but fairly obviously have no grounding in scientific fact ("Heavy Cell Phone Use Can Quadruple Your Risk of Deadly Brain Cancer," one article's headline reads). As for sourcing, articles on Mercola.com tend to link out to... other articles on Mercola.com.
It boggles the mind that Bilton and his editors saw it appropriate to quote Mercola as scientific source in an article about wearable tech and cancer. Sure, it's the Styles section, so standards might be a little loose, like the wide-leg pants that are so fashionable for fall. But besides Bilton not writing at all, which is the best option going forward for the paper, they should strongly consider limiting his topic choices to ones that don't involve actual scientific facts.
UPDATE 6:13 p.m.
For once, we are not the only outlet to find grave problems with a Bilton article. Discover has come down hard on him, as has the Verge and even the venerable Popular Science. And the headline on the online version of Bilton's piece now reads, "The Health Concerns in Wearable Tech." So guilty.
[Pic via Getty]
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