Forget the fear; we’re angry because it’s bullshit
After this happened, there was a tropical storm of backlash. Orac, easily the best known anonymous oncologist/skeptic (OK, that’s obviously a vanishingly small pool of people), has a good summary:
Not surprisingly, there was a lot of criticism of the article besides mine. Phil Plait trashed it. Daniel Engber likens debunking Bilton’s piece to shooting fish in a barrel, while James Cook notes that Bilton cherry picked the most alarmist studies. Nick Stockton of WIRED correctly referred to the article as an “attack on science.” Andrew Maynard of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center was “baffled” by the nonsense in the article. P.Z. Myers referred to the article as “flaming paranoia” while Alexandra Ossola urges everyone just to calm down. Russell Brandom sarcastically retorted that “this homeopath thinks you should use a hands-free headset.” (He also says, “Cram it, Bilton.”)
I’m only realising the full extent of this now (and quietly excoriating myself for missing the fact that the original article cited a Daily Mail article as a source) — I was busy yesterday working on my own debunking of this long streak of technomisery.
A quick summary: this article is arrant pseudoscience, it misrepresents the available research by consulting very little of it, it makes a totally unjustified comparison between smoking and phone usage, and finally, when it decides to include the opinion of an expert, it consults the Crown Prince of the lunatic ‘alternative’ cancer fringe and all-round danger to humanity Joe Mercola.
This piece is linked in from a quick piece by Dave Pell, whose work I like very much, about how there is a broader point here about a nascent fear of technology moving faster than our ability to remain un-affected by it.
Perhaps. But that feels like a broader point about the writer’s motives rather than the whole issue being discussed — and if we’ve established anything so far, it’s that the writer just might be an idiot.
So if there is a broader point here, we might start with the string of conclusions from all the responses from science bloggers:
(The Styles Editor) trusted a tech writer with no discernable expertise in science, biology, or medicine and just published his uninformed ramblings … it is possible for someone without a serious science background to write effectively about scientific issues. This, however, was not one of these times.
I think the more pressing question is how this particular kernel of folk science got passed into the New York Times. … The problem may be one of entryways: Some research goes straight into the paper’s rigorous, slow-moving Science section, while other studies sneak in through the Style desk or Op-Ed. … Science has a place in every news vertical. But I think it’s fair to say its visits should be supervised.
One more note: The very first paragraph of Bilton’s article recalls when doctors promoted cigarettes in the past. That is a classic pseudoscience technique: poisoning the well against science right away, trying to foment distrust of doctors and medicine. That’s not just bad writing; it’s downright irresponsible.
I expect this kind of thing from rags like the Daily Mail or other fact-free tabloids, but from the New York Times? Wow.
It’s in the Style section, but that doesn’t excuse it, unless you think “stylish” is a synonym for “idiot”. Clearly, what this means is that the Times needs to hire Carl Zimmer to edit all of the sections to make sure this never happens again.
If a writer at this country’s newspaper of record wants to write about the health dangers of technology, he has a responsibility to understand what the science actually says — and more importantly, how the science says it.
And finally, although please believe I’m not comparing myself to these people…
Do I have a broader point? Not this time. This is inaccurate and irresponsible journalism, and it should be recorded as such. End of story.
Oh, but we have a broader point now. Especially in light of this milquetoast response from the Times, which admits to almost no wrongdoing and misses the point completely.
It’s all very well to write about what colours of band AppleWatch will have, or who stubbed their toe in the Twitter office today, or what cellphone etiquette actually is now. This is the Zeitgeist of a still-developing industry, this is important to people. You can say, within reason, whatever you like.
But when you write about big issues of science and public health, especially when they directly affect people’s mortality, and especially from the New York Times, your responsibility changes.
Here’s the money quote from the response:
The reality is, we still don’t know definitively the causes of cellphones and cancer, but I can tell you one thing, as a technology enthusiast myself, I approached this piece thinking all the research was bogus. But, as I noted in my column, after doing my own reporting on this topic, I’m no longer going to talk on my cellphone for long periods of time without a headset. And I will likely also keep my soon-to-be-born son away from cellphone use until his brain develops, as erring on the side of caution, until more research is done, seems to me to be the smart and intelligent approach to this issue.
You can almost hear the voice on the wind “I’m entitled to my opinion!”
Sure, you are legally entitled to hold this opinion. But when it comes your ability to broadcast it into several million homes under the mantle of responsible journalism, your entitlement changes drastically. I would say it is now close to:
“No-one gives a toss about your opinion, or how you choose to deal with uncertainty, or how you raise your son, your responsibility is to represent the evidence properly.”
The position of ‘no-one really knows, so why not change your behaviour? — after all it costs nothing and I’m just being cautious?’ is a late-night deli combo plate of a few common pseudoscientific tropes:
- I’m just asking questions!
- No-one really knows, the jury is still out.
- Science has been wrong before, you know…
- What’s the harm in… *benign, silly behaviour here*?
There is an extraordinary amount of people asserting their opinions at great volume and at random angles on the internet. If you’re writing about cancer in the New York Times, is it sufficient to just be one of them?