Things That Suck: Wired Magazine’s Fact-Checking

A little over two years ago, CNN named modern hearing aids among the top 25 technology innovations of the past 25 years. Last year, Wired gushed over the latest hearing aid technology, saying that new hearing aids “make your Bluetooth gear look like junk.” Wired also reported last year on research that the center I run did with UC Berkeley on how hearing aids reduce the effort that the brain expends understanding speech in noise. And just last week, CES awarded a hearing aid its Best of Innovations 2008 Design and Engineering Award.

Which is why I was so surprised to see the latest issue of Wired magazine whose cover story on Why Things Suck includes a scathing and poorly informed attack on hearing aids. Hearing aids? Suck? Am I back in the 1980s world of distorting peak-clipping analog hearing aids?

This categorization is, frankly, astounding. Hearing aids have made incredible advances in technology over the past decade that rival anything out of Apple, Intel, or Microsoft. The response I constantly receive from other industries when discussing hearing aid technology, such as as when I met with researchers at Yahoo or researchers at a UC Berkeley engineering research center, is one of astonishment over their current level of sophistication and technical challenges that have been solved.

Hearing aids may whistle (although even that is becoming a thing of the past), but the do not in any way “suck.”

Many of the facts stated in article were either clearly wrong or bad interpretations of the state of technology today. Anyone familiar with hearing aids at all will immediately dismiss the story for some of its stunning inaccuracies.

What is surprising to me is that the reporter actually interviewed me about hearing aids two months ago before the publication of this piece. Anyone who knows me (or has read this blog, or read my publications, or heard my presentations), knows that that I am a fairly strong proponent of the current state of hearing aid technology and the benefit to the hearing impaired that they provide. This reporter was clearly filtering whatever information she received from me to use in her assignment on hearing aid suckage.

What’s unfortunate is that Wired didn’t do any fact checking on this story, and that neither the reporter nor the magazine checked with me (or apparently anyone else knowledgeable) on whether the facts were accurately represented in the story (I also now know why the reporter didn’t reply to my e-mail asking about the purpose of the article).

Rather than provide a point-by-point correction to the article, I will simply highlight and correct a few of the more obvious errors.

The article starts with the ubiquitous inaccurate comparison to eye-glasses, which have the near-perfect ability to compensate for optical distortion of the lens of the eye. Hearing aids address a much more difficult-to-solve medical ailment of neural damage. The strawman of “why aren’t hearing aids as good as glasses” has been beaten to death and this fallacious question is a fore-shadowing to the inaccuracies that follow.

The reporter rightly points out that hearing aids consist of highly specialized technology that does not benefit from off-the-shelf components used in other products—Dell will never be getting into the hearing aid business. Would one raise the same complaints about other high-tech medical devices? Would someone really complain that pacemakers or spinal implants don’t use the same components as an XBox 360? Why should hearing aids cost the same as simple ground-glass holders? Does anyone honestly think that the R&D behind complex electronic medical devices matches the work necessary to develop and produce contact lenses?

The reporter correctly identifies that the hearing impaired are more exhausted listening in noisy environments. Hearing loss has even been proven to cause poorer memory due to the increased cognitive demands caused by hearing loss. Research conducted at UC Berkeley in collaboration with the center that I direct, however, suggests that hearing aids can help to reduce cognitive load. Contrary to what the reporter insinuates, hearing aids can reduce the concentration to understand speech in noise, not cause it. In fact, Wired even reported on the benefit to listening effort provided by hearing aids last year! I think that this commenter to one of the online Wired pieces last year summarizes this benefit of hearing aids nicely:

When I don’t have my hearing aids, I spend most of my time trying to make sense of what people are saying. This leads not only stress and fatigue, but also miscommunication. The longer you go trying to understand, the easier it is to make mistakes in translation. On top of that, when you are constantly asking people to repeat themselves… it gets increasingly annoying for the speaker and the listener. Too much focus is on the translation of sounds into logical words and not on understanding the point or participating in the conversation.

Later in the sucks story, the reporter strangely suggests that bulk is a critical issue when using directional microphones in hearing aids. Bulk is not only non-critical, it is a non-issue. Few audiologists would suggest that directional microphones are not beneficial to patients, fewer still would even recognize bulk as consideration, and no patient has ever complained about the bulk of the directional microphone.

I have to assume that these and other mistakes are honest misinterpretations of what this reporter heard from the people she interviewed (including me). If so, the fact that Wired did not check the accuracy of what they wrote is unfortunate because it does a disservice to those who could experience real benefit from hearing aids but who might not seek hearing assistance because of the article.

The psycho-social consequences of hearing loss suffered by the hearing impaired are serious: depression, anxiety, fatigue, social isolation. These are details that I made available to the reporter by e-mail. Because of the possible deterrent effect this article could have to someone with these symptoms, I can’t simply shrug this article off with an, “Is she having a laugh?” dismissal—my only response is, “For shame.”