Fitbits probably won't give people tumors, but articles like the one The New York Times ran this week might give me an ulcer. In the recent piece by Style writer Nick Bilton, The New York Times pushes a heavy-handed anti-science message: Scientists aren't willing to say that no, beyond any shadow of a doubt, cell phones don't increase the likelihood of cancer (because such a statement, barring some radical discovery followed by several remarkably longterm and well-done follow-up studies, would be a dumb one for a scientist to make) so we should probably all be concerned about cell phones, and by extension the new smart devices like fitness trackers and smartwatches. I mean, we all use them, but at what cost, by God.
But here's the biggest problem: Bilton's main source in the article isn't a cellphone expert. He's a cancer "expert" who sells "alternative treatments" for cancer on his Web site. The guy telling you to be afraid of cellphones and smartwatches is the same one who thinks you could probably do without all that chemo. Bilton's piece is a tech column, so I suppose he's been given room to editorialize. But he presents his argument as one backed up by scientific "fact." Those facts aren't just wrong -- they're dangerous, too.
In reading this post, you should know that my mother had breast cancer when I was 14. I say "had" and not "has," because, lucky her, she was able to opt for a double mastectomy early in the game and hasn't needed any other treatment since. If my mother had not been a person who trusts modern medicine (a doctor, as it so happens) then I might not be so lucky with my tenses: There is a very real and dangerous push for cancer patients to rely on lifestyle changes, alternative therapies, and "holistic medicine" instead of the brutal but effective treatments that actually keep them alive. If my mother had decided to get some colon cleanses and high-intensity vitamin drops because going under the knife seemed a little extreme, she would be dead by now.
So while I sit over here grinding my ax, let's read a smart take from someone else -- Nick Stockton at WIRED:
This article is not about Nick Bilton. This article is about science, and how conspiracy-miners like Bilton misrepresent science to manufacture support for controversial ideas. The problem is not that Bilton believes that technology can cause diseases like cancer. That’s an old hypothesis, and one that science should (and does) examine. The problem is that he delivered his argument by targeting the most admirable hallmark of the scientific method: uncertainty in the face of incomplete evidence. And that makes his essay a pernicious attack on science itself.
Bilton’s argument follows a familiar formula: Make a provocative claim, back it up by cherry-picking from the scientific literature, throw in commentary from an “expert” or two, and season throughout with attacks on less-than-complete scientific data.
Or as journalist and breast cancer butt-kicker Xeni Jardin puts it:
As Stockton goes on to say in his article, Bilton is honing in on the fact that several studies have said we should probably keep investigating how the low levels of radiation in cellphones (and soon in many other devices, thanks to the increasing popularity of wearable computers like fitness trackers and smart watches) might affect us, which is cool. I'm all for continuing to investigate things.
But you know what? Other studies have examined the evidence and come away saying there's no danger at all. The National Cancer Institute states: "Studies thus far have not shown a consistent link between cell phone use and cancers of the brain, nerves, or other tissues of the head or neck. More research is needed because cell phone technology and how people use cell phones have been changing rapidly."
The fact that science hasn't reached a be-all-end-all conclusion on this does not mean we should assume the worst: It means scientists are doing good science instead of making grandiose claims they can't back up.
Claims like "the cure for cancer may be as simple as having a tooth pulled, then rebuilding your immune system."
(In case you haven't had your coffee yet, that's straight from the Web site of the New York Time's new favorite cancer expert)
This whole situations is like if I wrote a column on the year's best fashion trends, focusing on the fact that I think high heels might be the worst. A reasonable stance. But my main source would be some D-list celebrity who people in the fashion world only know for trying to sell lime green crocs from his website.
"But Rachel," my friends who know things about shoes would implore, "That guy is wrong and everyone knows that crocs are bad and how did you even come up with him as a reputable source and oh my God that color is terrible on you please take them off and maybe wear slightly lower heels in moderation or even sneakers or for heaven's sake just go barefoot if you want. AGH."
Except imagine that the guy also likes to go around saying that people should wear lime green crocs instead of getting chemotherapy when they have cancer.
But hey, maybe you just really need a reason to be nervous about all these new smart devices. Here's one: Apple is going to allow its users to enroll as subjects in research experiments by way of the health data recorded by iPhones and Apple Watches. It's a great thing, in theory, because it means researchers will have unprecedented access to large pools of health data. But it also means that Apple has to figure out how to make sure you're fully informed of the nature and implications of the research you're participating in, as well as how to ensure that pharmaceutical companies and universities don't "accidentally" get their hands on personal data of yours that you didn't volunteer.