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The Apple Watch isn't going to give you cancer, but bad reporting is going to make us dumber

Yet that's exactly what happened last night when the New York Times published an article originally titled "Could wearable computers be as harmful as cigarettes?", later amended to "The Health Concerns in Wearable Tech".

But what does all this research tell the Apple faithful who want to rush out and buy an Apple Watch, or the Google and Windows fanatics who are eager to own an alternative smartwatch?

Nothing. Because no "research" was properly presented, no true experts were quoted, and nothing was done, in good faith, to further knowledge or understanding.

The Apple Watch is going to help many people in many ways. It's going to make the world more accessible for some, and it's going to make lives healthier and more fit for others. The NYT, by picking a narrative to make a story instead of researching facts to present one, is not only failing to inform but is actively disinforming. It's making its readership dumber.

That's the only really frightening thing about it.

For more information on the science behind Apple Watch, iPhone, and health, check out Derek Kessler's essay:

Update: In addition to numerous tech publications calling the article to task, Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times Public Editor has now weighed in as well:

Here's my take: Mr. Bilton's writing on technology — on which he's often engaging and informative — doesn't make him a health or science expert. It is, of course, possible for a non-expert to write effectively on a complicated subject but, when that happens, extra checking and caution is in order. That didn't happen here.And although Mr. Bilton is a columnist, with plenty of leeway for expressing opinion, the careful interpretation of facts still matters. That, too, was lacking.What's more, the original web headline felt like click bait, although it certainly reflected the top of the column. Toning it down was a smart move — in fact, a necessity. That change happened after Times Science staff members saw the first headline online and objected, Mr. Emmrich told me.

Rene Ritchie
Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

47 Comments
  • As of a few minutes ago, apparently the NYT's Public Editor agrees you.
  • Probably got some backlash from the sensational headlines.. I swear, they are getting worse and worse.. and it's not just NYT.. It's become bait hell with publications lately.
  • How is that article much different? The title states that the Apple watch isn't going to give you cancer. Any facts to back that up? Perhaps the title should suggest that there's no proof the Apple watch will give you cancer instead of simply ruling out the possibility. Sent from the iMore App
  • Ok, disregard that for now. The link to the other article hadn't loaded so I didn't see that when I posted this. I'll have to give that one a read.
  • I hate quoting Carl Sagan but: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." The point being that it the responsibility of the person making the outlandish claim ("cell phones give you cancer!") to prove it. If I say that the sun will rise tomorrow, it's not up to me to prove it will happen, but up to you (if you disagree with it) to prove that it won't.
  • What's wrong with Carl Sagan...? Sent from the iMore App
  • He's a hack. He mostly just really bothers me because of the acclaim he receives, when in fact he pretty much stole every idea he is famous for from an unknown Soviet scientist, (one of those few times when the Russian claims of first invention were actually true). There are many very "run-of-the-mill" type of scientists that one never hears about that have made many more and many more far reaching discoveries. But you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who will say this except me so feel free to ignore. His wiki entry doesn't even mention his early beginnings (which is what I'm talking about).
  • Hack? Harsh. More showman than researcher? Sure. What's wrong with that.
  • Well, I've already beaten this drum too much. I don't want to offend people. It just galls me that he is hailed as a respected and serious scientist when he's not, and the fact that most of what he's famous for ("Cosmos" etc.) were not originally his ideas.
  • So he didn't invent TV shows about space? Thieving space hippy! Sent from the iMore App
  • Honestly, a lot of what you are saying could apply to Steve Jobs. Sent from the iMore App
  • Sounds like conspiricy theory to me, but I didn't know him personally... Sent from the iMore App
  • Although that statement is popular, in reality, like any other claim, extraordinary claims only require sufficient proof. Regardless, any article that ends with the advice to not wear your smart watch on your head is either satire or nonsense.
  • Agreed -- and the one quibble with the article here is that it commits the sin of that Sagan quote. The NYT article deserves criticism, but once you move beyond criticizing the lack of support in that piece to making an affirmative claim yourself -- here, the unalloyed assertion "apple watch isn't going to give you cancer" -- the the burden of proof shifts accordingly. The link to the AndroidCentral piece is nice, but inadequate for these purposes; once such a claim is made, the writer needs to include snippets and evidence directly to back up the central claim. It seems a minor point, but in an article accusing somebody else of bad reporting, practicing what you preach becomes that much more important.
  • Not in this case, no. It makes discussion absurd. Can I prove typing this reply won't give me cancer? Absent omniscience, no. Can I prove nothing unreal exists? Also no. Reasonableness needs to be taken into account. The Apple Watch won't give you cancer is a fair statement unless or until any reasonable evidence is presented proving otherwise.
  • That's absurd. He can't prove it does. You can't prove it doesn't. You can't do the exact same thing as someone else with No research to backup your claim and then bitch in your article that there is no evidence to support the other author's claims. You are one gigantic hypocrite. Over and over and over. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • When you make a positive statement, the onus is on you to back it up. Failure to do so is what makes discussion absurd, as it reduces it to people shouting past each other. I happen to agree with you that there is no data indicating it will, but that does not mean I can make assert it as fact. Consider this simple, contrived example: An unknown number of jelly beans in a jar. These two statements: 1) There is no evidence the number of jelly beans is even. 2) The number of jelly beans in the jar is odd. The first one is perfectly adequate to debunk "dumb journalism" screaming that the number is even. When people make assertions, demand they support them or shut up. The second one demands of *you* the response "prove it." Worse, it ends the discussion, with you shouting "odd" and him shouting "even" - and nobody stops to count. That is why you respond in the first way - to get at the truth. You did the second, when by all rules of debate and journalism, the first was the appropriate response - especially when criticizing the other guy's position. Unless, of course, you hold "dumb journalists" to a higher standard than you do yourself, which I do not believe to be the case.
  • However, the latest research completed by a team of scientists at Jacobs University, Germany, does confirm an earlier study that whilst not necessarily causing cancer, it does aggressively promote it, even at levels well below cell phone radiation: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006291X15003988
  • While the headline leaves off the important bit, namely the RF from the Apple watch won't give you cancer, the fact is, while Cancer is hardly a solved problem, it is also not a complete mystery. The mechanisms of cancer and what causes it aren't easy to grasp for the layperson, but that does not mean they are magical, nor that "anything" can give you cancer.
  • Everything in moderation i guess? Including the Apple Watch?
  • You can tell it's nonsense when it has this for the beginning of the argument: "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." This is all pure nonsense and has never been proven despite zillions of studies. The author doesn't state it as fact either, he couches it in terms like "we have ... suspected." This is just another way of saying "some people believe." There is nothing factual here at all, right from the get go.
  • We need to start wearing foil hats .. thats all there is too it.. and now wrap our wrists in foil too! Foil hats also protect us from aliens .. so double bonus! :D
  • Indeed. For the record, I've been interested in the topic for about ten years and in all that time I have found only one single true fact that can be stated without any equivocation about the effect cell phone use on the human body. Cell phone "radiation" is basically low level microwaves, so under constant or long term exposure it can heat up the tissues in your body in the same way as a microwave cooks food. It's so slight and almost un-noticeable of an effect though that someone would literally have to be glued to the cell phone 24/7 to get even a slight amount of heating in the tissues of their head. There is also no evidence that this (very, very, very slight) warming of the tissues causes any actual damage either. The (sensible) advice of the (more rigorous) studies that I have read on the topic is simple:
    - don't use your cell phone in an addictive manner (the teenage girl problem)
    - don't let toddlers or little kids use cell phones as their brains are still developing.
    - check where the antenna is located on your cell phone. As a result of these facts, Apple (now followed by others) purposely puts the cell antenna at the *bottom* of the phone, so as to keep it as far away from your brain as possible. Not all manufacturers do this.
  • Or put sunscreen on your leg and face where the phone normally goes. The metal will block the radiation... Right? But don't go outside bc that f'n sun'll fry your pasty @$$ !!! Sent from the iMore App
  • I like Wired's take on the subject the best. http://www.wired.com/2015/03/times-attack-wearables-really-attack-science/
  • My big grouse with Bilton's piece was that he, an amateur, held himself out as somebody qualified to evaluate research by experts. He lifted selective quotes from studies saying that the studies didn't rule out possible harm (as indeed, NO such study could!), but reserved the real quotes for a downright quack whose peer-reviewed research appears to be nil (at least as a couple of pages worth of Google Scholar output showed). Cancer was, of course, a leading cause of death and a scourge long before we used cellphones. Many studies have been performed on all sorts of possible causes over the decades. Dismissing these, as Dr. Merola does with actually illogical statements that BlueTooth is not potentially harmful while cell signals are, shows bad faith on his part that anybody who cares about these topics would've easily picked up on. I think the Public Editor made an inadequate apology. She should commission one of her actual science writers to characterize the state of our understanding, ASAP.
  • Apparently it's okay as long as you don't wear your smartwatch on your head. This counts as journalism?
  • I don't know where you're wearing your smartwatch...
  • They also allude to the idea that google and Microsoft are related, which I can't stand. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • They are very similar companies though, with similar aesthetics and ethics. It's an easy mistake to make. Most folks in the street see Google as "the new Microsoft" as well.
  • Most folks. Based on what? You know of any legit surveys of how most folks view Google in relation to Microsoft? Or Google to the new Microsoft? Posted via the Android iMore App!
  • Its all a hypothesis. Wearables haven't been around nearly long enough to have any evidence in either direction. My Gear is on my wrist constantly except for the 1.5 hours every two days that it needs to charge. While I perceive the risks are small, having a battery driven networked device strapped to my body almost 24 hours a day does give me cause for some concern, however not enough yet without any validation. I don't think the article is off in any way. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Seems every time there is a new technology there is always a reporter or a small group of people that have a hatred of technology. I remember my own brother believed statements made in the press that food cooked in a microwave was toxic. He also believes that food from Mcdonald's was bad and food from Burger King was good all because some things he read in the newspapers. Similarly there are those that believe everything that they read or they interpret from some reports as being gospel. In fact they will happily ignore reality and replace it with one of their own making. I may not be a fast adopter of technology. I relied on a map for the longest time until I realized that my Blackberry had a maps app on it that had been preinstalled by Verizon and I had been paying $5 a month for. Then asked it for directions (worked great until I went into a dead zone and myself and my father in law then spent hours going round in circles in this huge dead area) and now these days don't take along a map, I just look it up and let it find the way for me. Wearables, I have a withins but for some reason the plastic wrist strap makes my skin peel on my wrist and my iPhone really collects the same data so no need to use it. It doesn't mean I won't the Apple watch because I don't think you are any more likely to get cancer or any other ailment from a wearable than you would if you avoided all wearables and all smartphones and all technology and locked yourself away in a little log cabin somewhere with no power.... ...Ah crap! I forgot they say that smoke from wood can cause cancer and even some types of wood can give off vapors that cause cancer and standing in the sun can cause cancer and blah blah blah. I think I'll stick to ignoring all these articles that have been written by raving loonies.
  • Ditto. Sent from the iMore App
  • Are you f@$4ing serious Rene? There is nothing wrong with that NYT article. Unlike this article of yours I just read that could actually make people dumber because you haven't presented any evidence that proves the Apple watch does not increase the risk of developing cancer as you so confidently stated. The NYT article mentions multiple studies as evidence which says that it's unlikely but possible that radio waves from cellular devices could increase the risk of cancer according to studies reviewed by the WHO. They never said the Apple watch will give you cancer in the article. The article discusses the concerns some people may have about all wearable connected devices and name other devices as examples so they aren't singling the Apple watch out so you need to stop getting defensive and singling out journalist that wrote an article that was actually informative unlike your opinionated and fiction based piece of crap that is presented right here. The NYT article actually does say that it's not likely the apple watch will increase the risk ofvcancer because it doesn't have a cellular radio. The reality is that there haven't been enough if any quality studies on wearable connected technology to prove or disprove that they may increase the risk of cancer so I suggest you shut the hell up Rene.
  • Hears my question to you? Did the NYTs write any articles like this when Samsung gear or any other wearables were launched? If they are then fair play. If not then some journalists are promoting fear mongering. Does this NYTs journalist know of any group that have voiced concerns about wearables and cancer? Look it is good to ask these questions but the timing seems suspect to me. Sent from the iMore App
  • "Are you f@$4ing serious" lumiagrams, I suggest you take your own advice "I suggest you shut the hell up"
  • Unfortunately, it seems like everyone from Wired, who called it a war on science, to the Verge, who said it was bad and they should feel bad, disagrees with you. Oh, not to mention the New York Time's own Public Editor, who quickly and powerfully knocked that article down. (Though why it got published in the first place...?) I'm sorry you were duped, but I'm super happy you were ultimately educated. It's why we're all here.
  • Wired?
    I lost all respect when the called the demise of Apple many years ago.
    Not too mention the 100 things Apple needs to do, to turn Apple around.
    Journalism is long dead.
    I put more in Facebook that any "REPUTABLE" news or tabloid trash site.
  • There have actually been studies. None of them have provided any definite link between non-ionizing microwave radiation in the 2.4GHz range and cancer. We don't have a sudden increase hip cancer (given where your phones are at all times) or brain cancer. Given the age of cell phones, there should have been a sharp climb in such things by now that is unexplainable by any other method. Not happening. In addition, the mechanics of how microwaves can cause cancer has yet to be explained or even reasonably theorized. Cancer is not caused via magic. The mechanism of how things like cigarettes and other cancerous materials cause cancer is something we actually know. Finally, bilton literally knows nothing about RF. Like how BT, WiFi and 3G/4G all share the same frequency range (betwee 2.0 and 2.6 GHz). Yet, Bilton says that 2.4GHz is safe, and cannot cause harm to humans. That of course is idiocy, and it is testable. Should you wish to commit highly painful suicide, remove the door from your home microwave, which ALSO operates at 2.4 GHz, and stick your head inside while it is running on high for about 20 minutes. (Don't actually do this. I'm certain someone cares about you and would be saddened were you to cause yourself that much harm in such a stupid fashion.) The point is, Bilton's article shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how RF in that frequency range works, and that lack of understanding, (and quoting a noted quack like Mercola) makes his entire article rubbish.
  • As we drink out of our BPA plastic bottles, and eat our GMO foods. I believe we will be long dead before any watch can affect us, if they affect us at all.
  • Diet Coke from a can! The best way to forget you have cancer! Sent from the iMore App
  • UPDATE The New York Time's public editor has weighed in, and it's not pretty: http://publiceditor.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/03/19/a-tech-column-on-wearable-gadgets-draws-fire-as-pseudoscience/
  • Regardless of all this, SARS ratings of wearables are a good idea. Bluetooth exposes the user to a higher level of radiation than a cellular radio. Regularly wearing a Bluetooth headset in your ear, and a Bluetooth equipped smartwatch strapped around your wrist may or may not be of concern, certainly something for a university study or 2 -- but until more factual info is available, it would be good to know just what levels of radiation different products are emitting -- let the user decide.
  • Okay, then as a normal user, what's "safe"?
  • You should check with your doctor, or a local cancer center, to find a correct answer.
  • I hope Rene realizes that bad reporting is a two way street and iMore is not immune. The tech press, like iMore and others, often report on Apple's corporate and finance issues, legal issues, and political matters -- areas they know absolutely nothing about (but they think they do). And most of the time, they publish incorrect information, make inane comments, and end up sounding like fools. Unless you've got an MBA or a JD and 10 years of experience in the fields, don't talk to me about business or legal matters at tech companies. My advice to you guys is to steer clear of that stuff and stick to what you're good at (and why I come to the site) -- the tech.