A Badly Flawed NYT Story Trumpets Cell Phone Health Dangers

By Keith Kloor | March 18, 2015 12:43 pm

[UPDATE: See media reaction at bottom of this post. Also, be sure to read the correction at end of the NYT article and the response from the NYT public editor.]

I’m racing to meet a deadline, but this story in the New York Times is so dismaying I had to take a few minutes to call attention to it. The headline alone is a red flag: “Could Wearable Computers Be as Harmful as Cigarettes?”

It gets worse:

We have long suspected that cellphones, which give off low levels of radiation, could lead to brain tumors, cancer, disturbed blood rhythms and other health problems, if held too close to the body for extended periods.

Who is “we”? The reporter, Nick Bilton (who covers technology), goes on to mention numerous studies, some which are ambiguous, but one that

concluded that talking on a mobile or cordless phone for extended periods could triple the risk of a certain kind of brain cancer.

The thrust of the discussion in the piece gives the impression that heavy frequent cell phone users are at risk of developing brain tumors. That would be mistaken, as the National Cancer Institute says on its website. Another expert source apparently missed by Bilton is the Mayo Clinic, which says:

Currently, there’s no consensus about the degree of cancer risk — if any — posed by cellphone use.

Instead, for a story on the potential health risks of wearable electronic gadgets (such as the new Apple watch), the reporter turns to Joseph Mercola, an osteopath who is notorious for his many unsubstantiated medical claims, some of which have drawn a warning from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). The reader is not given this background information on Mercola, who is an integral part of the story after being introduced this way:

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.

How’s that for unintended irony? And from a dubious source who has no authoritative standing whatsoever to comment on any health-related matters.

The NYT reporter concludes:

After researching this column, talking to experts and poring over dozens of scientific papers, I have realized the dangers of cellphones when used for extended periods, and as a result I have stopped holding my phone next to my head and instead use a headset during phone calls.

Can somebody at the New York Times please give this technology reporter a refresher course on how to sniff out pseudo expert sources, how to assess the merits of a given study, and lastly, how to weigh scientific evidence? There’s already enough problematic journalism on medical and health issues. Readers deserve better from an illustrious newspaper.

UPDATE: Some folks have pointed out that the Times story appeared in the “Styles” section. My response:

UPDATE: The headline for the online version of the story now reads: “The Health Concerns in Wearable Tech”

UPDATE: Nice takedowns of the story here (Popular Science) and here (Wired), though the headline in the latter is off-putting. Gawker, like everyone, is dumfounded that Mercola is a primary source. The Verge, too, is astounded. Phil Plait’s jaw dropped and Business Insider asks why the NYT is “relying on alternative-health practitioners?”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Journalism, science
  • http://cendax.wordpress.com/ Norbrook

    As I recall, there have been a ton of studies about this issue, and they all come up with “nothing to see here.”

    • weezmgk

      25,000 peer reviewed studies on EMR in 30 years have found no health threats from radio signals. Ref: http://www.who.int/peh-emf/about/WhatisEMF/en/index1.html It’s the single most studied public health issue in medical history.

      6 billion mobile phones introduced into the environment and not a single confirmed case of any illness or injury from them.

  • http://nigguraths.wordpress.com Shub Niggurath

    KK, I will comment as this concerns cancer issues. The journalist is correct that the WHO has classified cell phones as a carcinogen ‘2B’ – meaning ‘not a definite cancer-causing agent but can’t say no. The WHO information page on this is well-written:


    On the other hand, the NCI webpage is a bit less balanced. For instance they dismiss positive association studies by immediately following it up with statements that there has been no measurable population-wide increase in gliomas or meningiomas. This swing they take is largely rhetorical: cancers can certainly increase in incidence in association with exposure torisk factors without appreciably bumping up incidence in national or large datasets. When Peter Duesberg asked the question, ‘If HIV is so common in Africa and nearly uniformly fatal, why hasn’t there been a noticeable increase in mortality rates in South Africa’ – he got shouted down and the paper was retracted.

    Additionally brain tumors, particularly gliomas are thought to have long latency periods and while cell phones have been around their use is still nowhere near-ubiquitous. Studying risk factors in long-latency tumors is fraught with difficulty. What can only be said confidently is that cellphones do not appreciably increase brain tumor rates to levels detectable unequivocally within the data available to date.

  • Buddy199

    As with GMO’s (and wind mills…and vaccinations…), if cell phones were linked to tumors or other lesions wouldn’t that risk be apparent after continual use over many years by billions of people?

  • First Officer

    I don’t know about cellphones but ingesting Dr. Mercola’s Miracle Himalayan Salt might give you cancer. It contains radioactive plutonium ! (Is there any other kind? :) )


  • DaveJR

    “The reader is not given this background information on Mercola, who is an integral part of the story after being introduced this way… “a physician who focuses on alternative medicine”.”

    What more needed to be said?


  • mem_somerville

    It is unpossible to visit Mercola’s site and not smell the quackery immediately.

    Are some people actually suggesting that health warnings in the style section deserve a different standard than other parts of the paper? Like if vaccine scars are unfashionable it’s ok to believe Mercola on avoiding vaccines too?

    • bezotch

      Last time I heard Mercola’s name, it was his claiming that a study showed non-GMO foods had vastly superior nutritional content as compared to their GMO counterparts.

      Turns out they were comparing soil samples. That’s right, what they were claiming were foods, were in fact, buckets of dirt,

      Quackery does not even begin to cover it.

      The article:


      Every time I hear Mercola’s name, it’s the same. He makes some outrageous claim, saying that it’s backed by a “study”. The “study” usually turns out to be a blog or Youtube video. Anytime Mercola’s name is mentioned, it is safe to assume that whatever is being claimed is absolutely false. If there actually was any legitimate science involved, they would use legitimate scientists, and not have rely on a carpet-bagger like Mercola.

  • Mike Richardson

    Unfortunately, that sounds like the kind of story that wouldn’t earn a passing grade in a college journalism course. Maybe not even in high school. I’ll admit as a guy I have a near superstitious fear of putting a cell phone in my pocket, “just in case,” but as far as actual science supporting a definite link to cancer, it seems pretty lacking. And besides, if the microwaves in question are not energetic enough to jostle water molecules, why would one think they pose any danger to larger organic molecules? I know putting one’s head in a microwave without some type of safety cutoff is a bad idea (thanks, “Last House on the Left”), but cell phones don’t use anywhere near that level of energy. There are also people that swear they are allergic to any EM energy, but I don’t think anyone has ever been able to establish a cause that isn’t purely psychological.

  • Phil Shaffer

    AH the Times, home of Jayson Blair. I understand that this publication used to be well regarded in journalism circles. Why is it you never see this kind of junk in the WSJ? or WaPo?

  • http://nigguraths.wordpress.com Shub Niggurath

    Keith, this is all terribly confusing. Sometimes science journalists tell us even small risk factors cannot be ignored and denying their impact is because you are ‘industry-sponsored’, or evil or a ‘denier’ etc. This is the case with GMOs – as you well know and climate change – as you know too. At other times journalists, sometimes the same ones, tell us small risk factors and uncertainties can be completely ignored because yada yada, and if you are blowing them out of proportion you are a practitioner of woo.

    Sometimes august scientific organizations study and dissect minuscule odds ratios and never let go of them, practice bad science in pursuit of regulatory action. This is certainly the case with second-hand smoke and cancer risk. You must know that Geoffrey Kabat, quoted in the Popular Science, is an epidemiologist who came to the politically unfashionable conclusion that the link between SHS and lung cancer was weak. He and especially co-author James Enstrom have endured a lot of trouble, loss of renumeration and damage to their reputations (and careers) on account of publishing a paper to this effect.

    • Buddy199

      You mean group think and severe peer and economic pressure influence and distort research? Good thing that never happens with climate science.

    • Darby42164

      Don’t even get me going on the amount of scientific publications put out these days that are found to not be repeatable. In the cancer field this was tested, confidentially, by big pharma and found a rather large percentage could not be reproduced. Sigh.

    • JH

      Shubby! Blasphemer! We must ensure that science is *ALWAYS* on the side of RIGHTEOUS MORAL RIGTHEOUSNESS and thus employed against EVIL CORPORATE GREED!!! If the science has not yet been found to LEAD US TO RIGHTEOUSNESS, we must continue to SEEK IT!

  • Kopernicus

    People that buy into ‘alternative medicine’ are the same people that buy into multiculturalism and collectivism. There is always something better out there, no matter if the facts don’t support it.

    Anyone in the MSM who claims they read ‘scientific papers’ has never read one. I hold a Ph.D. and what we publish is not understandable to someone with a journalism degree. Same with the primary medical literature, unless you understand the highly dense jargon it is unreadable.

  • ithakavi

    The only news here is that someone is surprised that the New York Slimes publishes illogical alarmist garbage.

    • johnwerneken

      Yea. Religions are like that, that’s their whole purpose: individual and group identity.

  • Jeffn

    But… the precautionary principle!
    And since someone, somewhere, however inaccurately raised an implausible concern, the “science” rules of climate would now dictate that the burden of proof is on Apple, Nokia, Motorola etc to prove that their products are safe. But they can’t do this by funding scientific study- the Willie Soon affair proves that any industry funding, no matter how remote from the actual work, renders not just the science worthless but ensures any participating scientist is somehow “tainted” as well.*
    Important caveat- as long as the work fits the right political narrative, industry funding is irrelevant.

  • Alan_McIntire

    Probably the only unhealth thing about cell phones is talking while driving.

    • Darby42164

      So true yet you don’t see the pseudoscientists ringing their hands over this very real life threatening risk. Instead they go after the stuff where there is no credible statistical link.

  • watcher104

    I’m surprised I haven’t found hard copies of the NYT next to the National Enquirer at my local supermarket yet.

  • Darby42164

    As a scientist, and a cancer researcher no less, I have stopped being appalled at the garbage the NYTimes and other newspapers put out as scientific reporting. I stopped being appalled because apathy has completely set in. So mustering some energy here: cell phones are not likely to cause brain cancer. The entire premise assumes the radiation is sufficient to penetrate the skull and impact the brain, thus, somehow, using unknown mechanisms, then causes brain tumors. Well, just so happens the radiation is not strong enough to penetrate the skull anyhow, so the “causative” agent is not there in the brain. OK science hucksters, on to “cell phones cause melanoma because radiation doesn’t penetrate to the brain so must cause skin cancer near the ears, due to some undefined mechanism that we can’t identify”.

  • ronaldmsonntag

    Thank you for the succinct take down! Amazing, isn’t it? Over 10,000 peer reviewed scientists are in agreement on climate change and we can’t even get congress to agree to vote that this is real, but, a handful of pseudo-scientists report a possible problem with cell phone radiation, without a single quoted source of published scientific facts, and the NYT dignifies it with an actual story! I am thankful for reporters like you willing to call out how badly our news sources have become.

  • http://www.google.com/+CharlieFranz3754 Charlie Franz

    Why anyone would ever use the NYT for science news is beyond me. With access to so many reliable sources the only excuse I can come up with is laziness. Thinking the real heavy stuff will be boiled down to something digestible for the common moron in ‘murica that has no science education except for talk show wisdom spewing forth at every frequency on the dial these idiots will have something to dribble while standing around in their man cave garages drinking cans of Bud/Busch!

  • 5yak5

    There’s a difference between “no consensus” and “safe.” As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on this subject.

  • Vice Rowanda

    Savvy post ! Incidentally , you a a form , my colleague filled a blank document here http://goo.gl/QWv9AE


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Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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