Why is the New York Times turning to Joseph Mercola as an expert on cancer risk?

The following is a guest post by Kevin Lomangino, managing editor of HealthNewsReview.org. He tweets as @Klomangino

Alert reader Bahar Gholipour (@Alterwired on Twitter) pointed us to a story appearing in today’s New York Times Style section about the potential cancer risks posed by wearable technology such as the new Apple Watch.

With Gary out of the office today, we can’t do much more than raise a few obvious concerns about the quality of the Times’s coverage:

  • The fear-mongering, click-bait headline asks whether wearable computers could be “as harmful as cigarettes.”  While I’m no expert on this subject, I’d note that the National Cancer Institute concludes that “Studies thus far have not shown a consistent link between cell phone use and cancers of the brain, nerves, or other tissues of the head or neck.”  I’m aware of no evidence suggesting that these devices pose risks anywhere near the magnitude of those associated with cigarettes.
  • More worrisome, the story turns to Joseph Mercola, an alternative medicine doctor who believes that cancer is caused by root canals, as its primary expert source. While he doesn’t suggest that “the cure for cancer may be as simple as having a tooth pulled” as he has previously, it’s a shame to see him presented as someone whom readers can trust to evaluate the evidence in this field. Is there no one more qualified that the Times could have turned to for a comment?

I have a hard time believing this story would have passed muster for the Health section of the Times. Do readers of the Style section deserve any less?

Note: We have a follow-up post about a commentary from New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan and author Nick Bolton’s troubling defense of his sourcing: Nick Bolton blames readers for not knowing who Joseph Mercola is.

Addendum:  Others commented on the New York Times piece.

Update 3/21:  

A New York Times editor’s note was added to the original piece.  It reads:

Addendum: March 21, 2015

Editors’ Note

The Disruptions column in the Styles section on Thursday, discussing possible health concerns related to wearable technology, gave an inadequate account of the status of research about cellphone radiation and cancer risk.

Neither epidemiological nor laboratory studies have found reliable evidence of such risks, and there is no widely accepted theory as to how they might arise. According to the World Health Organization, “To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.” The American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have all said there is no convincing evidence for a causal relationship. While researchers are continuing to study possible risks, the column should have included more of this background for balance.

In addition, one source quoted in the article, Dr. Joseph Mercola, has been widely criticized by experts for his claims about disease risks and treatments. More of that background should have been included, or he should not have been cited as a source.

An early version of the headline for the article online — “Could Wearable Computers Be as Harmful as Cigarettes?” — also went too far in suggesting any such comparison.

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Comments (5)

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Guillermo

March 18, 2015 at 11:54 am

Absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence, as i’m sure you’ll know Mr. Lomangino. With all my respect. Tobacco industry also achieved a lack of evidence about the harmful effect of smoking for a long time.

Martin

March 18, 2015 at 3:11 pm

actually, consistent absence of evidence IS evidence of absence. That’s how meta-analyses work.

Paul John Scott

March 19, 2015 at 6:53 am

The science ministry feasting on this piece will be in nursing homes when their boorishness on these occasions is forgiven, preferably for being correct but it’s also possible they will be shown kindness because health calamity sometimes makes humans show each other mercy. A lot of reputable scientists find the technology troubling, including some quoted in the article (Hardell) and I personally find the NCI strangely hostile to the question. Ron Herberman was troubled about RF. The COI in the research is irrefutable and the biological mechanism is demonstrated in animal studies.

Susan Molchan, MD

March 19, 2015 at 6:53 am

The tobacco industry manufactured evidence, hid data, & twisted statistics. “Evidence” is not always evidence, and stories describing scientific results may not interpret risk, uncertainty, & probability well. Those in the Style section should be flagged w/ a warning themselves.

dr gayle

March 23, 2015 at 9:21 am

The known science regarding EMF dates back to the 1940s. Serious scientific research was completed in the 1980s which showed definitively that you need to keep theses devices away from your body 6-8 feet, the same as EMF generating microwave ovens. Mercola is just an aggregator and a fact that he did copy my original bolg format from 1991 to set up his web site. I would like to have been paid for all the stories taken from my site w/o attribution. When he went to selling stuff his true self came out $$$