Eating fish is healthy. No, avoid eating fish. Drink wine for good health. Avoid drinking wine. Health related study results can admittedly be confusing and conflicting. But the news that a recent study on chocolate’s health effects was an elaborate hoax is shameful for doing the public the disservice of making readers into nonbelievers who may disregard sound scientific information in the future.
A “journalist” and a documentary filmmaker created a faulty scientific study that determined that dark chocolate can help people lose weight. The writer, Johannes Bohannon, who has a Ph.D. in molecular biology, set up a fake institute that conducted the research, paid to get it published in a non-peer-reviewed journal, sent out a press release about the study to 5,000 media outlets, then sat back laughing and enjoying himself watching the information get published in other mainstream publications to illustrate how “junk science” creates headlines and food fads.
Yesterday, Bohannon announced to the world, “I fooled millions into thinking chocolate helps weight loss.” While he may be proud of his ruse, it does a disservice to everyone from journalists to readers to real researchers and more. It encourages people to be skeptical nonbelievers on legitimate research results and, at a time when Brian Williams and others are being looked at for reporting falsehoods, hurts journalists everywhere.
It should be noted, however, that most publications did not report his findings. The press release went to 5,000 reporters or editors, but only approximately a dozen publications around the world published the information (Guardian Liberty Voice did not.). So, he may claim to have fooled millions, but the hoax has gotten a lot more attention than his original story.
It is never a good idea to believe everything one reads, but the chocolate study hoax is shameful for making readers be skeptical nonbelievers and discount research published worldwide. Readers should not disregard health and diet-related studies going forward; just take them with a grain of salt. (Oh wait, salt is bad for people!) Check what scientific journal published it, whether it was conducted by a credible organization or university, and how many people participated (i.e. were the results statistically significant?). Those publications that did look at these aspects clearly would have not run the story.
The questionable study did use real data and a real clinical trial. It just was not large enough to be statistically significant, with only 16 participants split into three groups (one that followed a low-carb diet, another that ate a low-carb diet with 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate added daily as well as a control group). The dieters lost weight and he claimed the chocolate eaters lost 10 percent more, but there were only five of them! The results could have been affected by sheer luck, bloating, time of month or one person in each group having weight changes that skewed the data with such small numbers. Additionally, it is not clear how long his study was, but most well-done research covers a longer period to see if the results hold up.
The publication that ran the study, International Archives of Medicine, is one that charges writers a fee to publish their articles. Come up with the cash, a study is published “in a scientific journal,” just not one that is credible and published by a professional association or is well-respected for peer-review practices like JAMA or The Lancet.
Bohannon making boasts about his chocolate study hoax and “fooling millions” of readers is shameful and his con clearly will make everyone nonbelievers the next time he publishes anything. The documentary he and his collaborator made on the whole hoax, set to air in Europe next week, will hopefully draw too few viewers to be statistically significant.
By Dyanne Weiss
Forbes: How To Avoid Being Fooled By The Latest Shocking Diet Study
New York Magazine: What a Chocolate Hoax Can Teach Us About Junk Science
NPR: Why A Journalist Scammed The Media Into Spreading Bad Chocolate Science