'Sophisticated Evaluation of Serious Research' at the New York Times?

03/28/2015 09:12 am ET | Updated May 28, 2015

On March 19, Nick Bilton, technology columnist at The New York Times, wrote an article in the newspaper entitled "New Gadgets, New Health Worries." Approximately half of the piece was about the possible health hazards posed by the new Apple Watch and other smart watches; the other half concerned the health hazards associated with the use of cellphones. "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," Bilton wrote.

Later in his column, he declared that the most definitive and unbiased findings leading to this suspicion had come from the conclusions of a panel of 31 scientists from 14 nations that had been convened by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization, located in Lyon, France. Bilton described the panel's findings as follows: "After dissecting dozens of peer-reviewed studies on cellphone safety, the panel concluded in 2011 that cellphones were 'possibly carcinogenic' and that the devices could be as harmful as certain dry-cleaning chemicals and pesticides." He cited the results of one of these studies, which had been conducted by the well known Swedish oncologist and epidemiologist Dr. Lennart Hardell, who had found that prolonged use of cell phones could "triple" the risk of developing a certain type of brain cancer, and that cell phone radiation might be especially harmful to the developing brains of children.

Toward the end of his column, Bilton told his readers that he had "stopped holding my cell phone next to my head and instead use a headset."

Within hours, Bilton was taken to the woodshed by none other than Margaret Sullivan, the Times' public editor, who, according to the newspaper, "investigates matters of journalistic integrity." Sullivan posted a blog in which she scolded Bilton for writing about a complicated subject without keeping in mind that "extra checking and caution is in order." She went on to say that although he is a columnist with plenty of leeway for expressing opinion, "the careful interpretation of facts still matters" -- something she claimed was lacking in his piece. "The column clearly needed much more vetting," she declared, "at least some of which could have been done internally at The Times." She made no mention of Bilton's emphasis of the fact that scientists on the panel convened by the IARC had concluded that cellphone radiation was a possible carcinogen.

Apparently convinced that Bilton deserved further censure, an Editors' Note appeared, on March 21, in the Corrections section of The Times, declaring that his column "gave an inadequate account of the status of research about cellphone radiation and cancer risk." The note said, "Neither epidemiological nor laboratory studies have found reliable evidence of such risks..." It went on to claim, "According to the World Health Organization, 'To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.'" The Editors' Note made no mention of the conclusion of the panel of 31 scientists organized by the IARC in 2011, who had determined that cellphone radiation was "possibly carcinogenic," or of the fact that the Agency is part of the World Health Organization.

Examination of The Times' website reveals that on May 31, 2011, two of the newspaper's reporters, Tara Parker-Pope and Felicity Barringer, posted a three-page article entitled "Cellphone Radiation May Cause Cancer, Advisory Panel Says." The article described the conclusions of the very same panel of 31 scientists convened by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer that Bilton described in his column almost four years later. Parker-Pope and Barringer said that the panel had been led by Dr. Jonathan M. Samet, a physician and epidemiologist at the University of Southern California, who was a member of President Obama's National Cancer Advisory Board. Their article stated that during a press conference, "Dr. Samet said the panel's decision to classify cellphones as 'possibly carcinogenic' was based largely on epidemiological data showing an increased risk among heavy cellphone users of a rare type of [brain] tumor called a glioma."

So much for the accuracy and impartiality of the authors of The Times' Editors' Note, who appear either to have developed a severe case of institutional amnesia, or decided to confer the presumption of innocence upon cellphone radiation, as the newspaper did upon asbestos for an entire decade after the mineral had been shown to be the most important industrial carcinogen in the world.

In any event, it would be wise not to expect any changes anytime soon in The Times' coverage of the potential health hazards associated with cellphone radiation. In the final sentence of her attack upon Bilton's column, Sullivan called for "sophisticated evaluation of serious research." Four days later, on March 24, the following sentence could be found in the Science Times section of the newspaper in an article written by George Johnson, who contributes a monthly column to the section.

"From the perspective of science," Johnson wrote, "the likelihood of the rays [microwave radiated emitted by cell phones] somehow causing harm is about as strong as the evidence for ESP."

So much for "sophisticated evaluation of serious research" at The New York Times.