Nick Bilton blames readers for not knowing who Joseph Mercola is

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

The New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has an excellent post up about the fear-mongering cancer story that I wrote about yesterday.

She acknowledges that the coverage on this story was lacking in many ways. She also notes that Nick Bilton — a tech columnist — should’ve been more closely supervised when writing about health:

“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.”

She also offers us Bilton’s take on why he used Joseph Mercola as an expert source for the story.

I find his defense to be totally inadequate.

Never mind Bilton’s nonsensical statement that, “The reality is, we still don’t know definitively the causes of cellphones and cancer.”

Let’s chalk that up to a transcription error.

What really irks me is Bilton’s attempt to blame readers for not knowing that Joseph Mercola is an irresponsible huckster.

Paraphrasing Bilton, Sullivan writes, “He said that describing Dr. Mercola as an alternative practitioner should have alerted readers.”

Is it just me, or is there an unfinished thought at the end of that sentence?

What is it that Bilton thought he was “alerting” us to with his description? The fact that Dr. Mercola holds antiscience views?

For those who don’t understand Bilton’s code, wouldn’t it have been better to just come right out and say what he meant?

Something like, “Hey, even though this guy thinks that root canals cause cancer, I’m going to quote him as an authority on cancer risk in the New York Times”?

Bilton probably felt uncomfortable coming out and saying something like that so baldly.

Which should have been a good indication that he never should have been talking to Mercola in the first place.

Bilton still doesn’t seem to recognize that fact.

He also doesn’t seem to recognize the damage he’s done by legitimizing Mercola in The New York Times.

Update 3/20:

Let’s remember that cell phones aside, Mercola’s health advice is more than just harmless nonsense. He has a real impact on the health of real people, and giving him a bigger platform is a problem. Twitter drove that point home with some examples:



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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Paul John Scott

March 20, 2015 at 12:40 pm

Not an excellent post by Sullivan in my view but I appreciate the follow up here. I won’t comment on Joseph Mercola, other to say than his inclusion in the piece appears to be low hanging fruit for critics of the larger question of cell phones and cancer. It sounds like the spleen being vented regarding the use of his views is understandable. Take him out of the piece, however, and you can’t have the same reactionary response to the question of cell phones and cancer. But that’s exactly what Sullivan has allowed here, along with the techies and self-identified pro-science brigade strangely energized by trampling this subject upon its every mention. Lennart Hardell’s work was quoted in the Bilton piece and I don’t hear anyone saying what was wrong with his work. In my view, Sullivan feeds a larger bias against the topic by quoting at length the erroneous reader assertion that no link has been proposed for non ionizing radiation to cause genetic damage (it has, several have actually, including weakened immunity in repairing normal dna damage.) The Times’ science desk might have helped the Styles piece stand on it’s own with better sourcing, then again, judging by the fact of the ensuing firestorm, one which appears to be about more than just Mercola, they might have rejected the topic outright.


March 22, 2015 at 4:34 am

POOR Mainstream medicine is the real quackery. Why? Because the AMA
(American Medical Association) says so. Hospitals, doctors and clinics
caused by the medical professions. Now, my good friends, what was it
you were saying about poor Mercola? Wise up. Perhaps we can expect the good
author to research this new information (I’m sure he didn’t know it) and present
it at the next boob festival, er, the next article, I mean…..hmmmm….

Trevor Butterworth

March 22, 2015 at 11:40 am

The FDA said the following about Hardell et al.:

“The results reported by Hardell et al. are not in agreement with results obtained in other long term studies. Also, the use of mailed questionnaire for exposure assessment and lack of adjustments for possible confounding factors makes the Hardell et al. study design significantly different from other studies. These facts along with the lack of an established mechanism of action and absence of supporting animal data make it difficult to interpret Hardell et al. findings.”

Cited here:

    Paul John Scott

    March 23, 2015 at 9:26 am

    The link is interesting, thanks. Certainly a little more thoughtful than the “Mercola’s a quack” frenzy under way last week. It would take several hours to sift through, always part of the problem with these things. The last time I dived into the data on the topic, the /industry/Danish studies that the NCI and others were citing as proof of all being well were relying on 10 year latencies, which is way too short. The idea that Hardell is an outlier is not especially reassuring. So is David Healy, and he’s right, but that’s another subject. So Hardell mailed questionnaires, on one occasion the industry funded Danes looked at cell phone records of people for phones that were only being used at the office, vastly underestimating use. So there’s these methodology debates, and then there’s the question of whether rates are going up, which will settle the topic, but probably not for another decade or so. We are getting close to the time when that would happen, but until it does, there is simply no reason, other than ideological and identity battles, not to urge caution. The iphone handbook tells you to hold the thing away from your head. Or maybe they took that out…

    Paul John Scott

    March 23, 2015 at 10:12 am

    Sorry to counter link you, :) but an Environmental Health Trust conference updated the Hardell work in 2013, showing increased after 25 years (see Moscowitz talk, esp 16:00) and rising rates of brain tumors in Scandinavia (where the technology was created). The latest Hardell work got no press of course. The mechanism that Sullivan doesn’t know about is cellular stress response (see Leszczynski talk).