The New York Times has responded to all the criticisms of their stupid article on the health dangers of the Apple Watch. And they have done a terrible job.
Three things bothered me about this reply.
It’s long. It’s really long. It meanders all over the place, trying to cover all the bases — it’s like a fan dance, only instead of a fan, they’ve got a single feather, and they’re trying to whip it around all over the place to cover the fact that they’re naked.
And all the babbling goes nowhere. At the end they concluded, vaguely, that the piece needed more vetting — OK, it certainly did, why aren’t you checking it out now? — but otherwise, no action is taken. Why bother to say anything?
There are two ways you can respond to a problematic article. One way is this:
We have reviewed the article, and find it controversial but well within our standard journalistic practices. We are keeping it as is and appreciate the author’s work.
Or you could do this.
The article is seriously problematic; it was inadequately vetted and represents the scientific consensus poorly. We are retracting it (or making a long list of errors), and will avoid using the author for health and science related articles in the future.
Only that’s not what the NY Times has done. This is what their summary looks like:
The article is seriously problematic; it was inadequately vetted and represents the scientific consensus poorly. We are keeping it as is and appreciate the author’s work.
Madness. Their reply notes all these problems, and then does nothing.
Nick Bilton is an idiot.
I corresponded with Mr. Bilton and the Styles editor, Stuart Emmrich. Mr. Bilton, defending the column and its sources, mentioned other Times articles over the years that have raised questions and concerns on the same subject. On the use of Dr. Mercola, he told me that his contribution was a relatively small part of the column.
He is one view among a dozen studies, articles and reports I cite in the column,he said. (However, I’ll note that Dr. Mercola is the only person directly quoted in the column.) He said that describing Dr. Mercola as an alternative practitioner should have alerted readers.
It should have alerted readers, but apparently a NYT journalist is a lower class of beast who is completely oblivious to the quality of his sources. Good to know.
Mr. Bilton also wrote to me:
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.
Speaking as a technology enthusiast myself, I’m pretty sure we do know the causes of cellphones. As a biologist, I can also say that we do know, in a general sense, the causes of cancer (the detailed error by error variation in an individual cancer is a different problem). We also know that there is no correlation between cell phone use and cancer incidence — the few studies that say there is are problematic, while many studies with large sample sizes have found no link — so if, as he’s trying to say, we don’t understand how cell phones cause cancer, he’s not even wrong. They don’t.
I also don’t know how compact fluorescent light bulbs draw so many tigers to my house, but I think the smart and intelligent approach to prevent tigers from eating me is to go back to incandescents.
I don’t understand why the piranhas would keep leaping up out of my toilet when we switched to a vegetarian diet, but I think the smart and intelligent approach would be to eat lots more meat, to satisfy the sewer piranhas.
I don’t understand why toe crabs nest in my sock drawer, but I think the smart and intelligent approach to keep my toes from getting pinched is to stop wearing socks.
And that’s why, if ever I have grandchildren, they will not be permitted to use fluorescent lights, eat vegetables, or wear socks. Because I am so smart. Like Nick Bilton.
In other news that casts doubt on the collective wisdom of the New York Times administration, Nicholas Wade is back writing articles on genetics for them.