It is far, far too easy in our current social media-obsessed culture to make untrue or questionable things go viral. Just today, for example, news has spread that beloved Nigerian author Chinua Achebe has died. (He died two years ago, actually, and if you read the NY Times article before sharing it you will see it is dated 2013.) But it's not just internet trolls or people at websites like naturalnews.com (don't get me started) who perpetuate false information and, more dangerously, a distrust of science altogether. Even the Times itself gets in on the game sometimes.
That happened last week when technology columnist Nick Bilton wrote one of those "can this kill you? Nobody knows yet! Freak out!" articles, this time about wearables and whether they might cause cancer. Apple recently released its watch, everyone's wearing a FitBit or Jawbone, so and no one wants cancer, so obviously this was going to get clicks. And get clicks it did, but it got a lot of backlash as well. I would actually argue this is the positive impact of a respected publication like the Times publishing something like this: few people care enough to take Natural News to task when it drums up conspiracy for no reason, but when the Grey Lady gets out of line, it gets noticed, and people learn things.
One person who noticed was Nick Stockton at Wired. He wrote this great piece explaining why pieces like Bilton's aren't just dangerous because they make people worry without the right information, but also because they encourage people to question the value of science in general.
It’s how evolution deniers twisted the idea of a “missing link” into a weapon that is handicapping biology education in US public schools. It’s how people converted legitimate ecological concerns about genetically modified organisms into weapons against technology that could help stave off famine. In fact, the word “uncertainty” is a favorite turn of phrase for climate change deniers, whose incessant attacks on the nuances in well-constructed research have resulted in a political stalemate on environmental policy changes within the government of the only nation on Earth that can singlehandedly enact meaningful legislation to tackle global warming.
It's not a hit piece against Bilton, it's its own cautionary tale. I recommend giving it a read!