Radiation from smartwatches, wearables: real, alarmist, or the NY Times?

click to enlargeThe Gimlet Eye has that certain half-baked radioactive ‘glow’. The healtherati are all aTwitter over a New York Times Style (!) section article that does the unthinkable–it dares to raise the question of the possible harm of radiation that wearables, including smartwatches as well as smartphones, might present to both adults and children. The writer, Nick Bilton, is a regular tech columnist.

After an unfortunate baiting for attention at the start, making an analogy of cellphone/wearable radiation to 1930s adverts with doctors ‘endorsing’ cigarettes, he for the most part tries to take a balanced approach. By the end, he lines it up like this. Bluetooth LE and Wi-Fi–no evidence of harm in adults. 3G/4G cellphone radiation–you may want to be careful. He points out that studies aren’t definitive. Older studies, such as the WHO’s, a Swedish and some European studies point to harmful (carcinogenic) effects from phones held extensively too close to the head, but nothing is definitive in causality as the CDC pointed out and additional studies have proven no conclusive evidence of harm. Conclusion–use anything 3G/4G with caution, away from the head, limit exposure by children or pregnant women. Cautious enough?

Oddly, he advocates Bluetooth headsets but doesn’t mention using speakerphone settings–and then, for the smashing windup, won’t put the Bluetoothed Apple Watch near his head. It’s a weirdly sourced (an alternative doctor the only one cited? Old studies?) and half-baked, partially tossed salad article. Consider: most wearables are–surprise, Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connected. But it does bring up the inconvenient question, only partially answered, of All Those Rads and What (If Anything) Are They Doing To Us.

What’s really interesting? The immediate, twitchy and prolonged press response. As they say in New Jersey, they are ‘jumping ugly’.Wired, manning the High Tower and the 50 cal., accuses the Times writer of ‘bad science’ and the ‘antiscience meme’ (whatever that is), then blames Mr Bilton for attacking science itself. (To give you an idea of the high tone, it closes with saying that science also says that the planet is warming. Now this is while the skeptical Eye, freezing in NY on the verge of Spring, has read many reports of other scientific studies which say it is cooling or temperatures are leveling, with oceans and volcanoes laughing at Puny Man’s Gases. Settled? My Eye!)

Taking off at a low level and augering in from there is The Verge (of what?), one of those many online mélanges of entertainment, scandal, tech, news and whatever gets you through the night. It’s a hot little rant that sends Mr Bilton to Conspiracy Coventry because of Dr Mercola, and to National Enquirer/The Sun-territory by “kicking the piece off by comparing the new Apple Watch to smoking cigarettes”. First, Dr Mercola has been into trouble over health claims with the FDA, but so has 23andme. In the world of alternative health, he is also controversial. (For us, he’d never be a primary source, but a helping on the side or to show how fringe views have gone mainstream.) Second, the clumsy, borrowed-interest analogy to cigarettes was agonizing in the original headline, but neither there, in the revised headline nor in the opening does Mr Bilton make that direct comparison. But then again, consider the article writer’s editor; The Verge is a publication where the science editor tweeted, “This is why, btw, you don’t pub a science article in the f*****g STYLE section, especially when it’s written by a tech journalist.” (Edited for unamusing use of profanity. And hey, count your lucky stars that it didn’t wind up in the Book Review!)

Somewhere in the middle, PopSci sparely and without rancor points out that studies after many years have shown no association of cellphone usage with brain cancer, and that there is no trend upward as lung cancer did after World War I when smoking became popular; Discover’s blog delivers a point-by-point journo-spanking on a ‘badly flawed’ article. Slate, Science Blog…the beat(up) goes on. MedCityNews covers how the Times began to realize that the column Needed An Editor. Really. It all begins to sound like a Mass Snit de Journo having very little to do with science, and a lot to do with the Times. Even the Times‘ Public Editor gets into the act. Oh, the humanity! They do their part–to lengthen the New York Minute of this article’s life.

One last Glimpse: what about the distractions of smartphones, smartwatches and especially smart car dashboards, which your Editors have written about for some time?–perhaps more fatal, and far more quickly, than All Those Rads.

Categories: Latest News, Opinion, and Soapbox.

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