Bad science and great marketing: The “healthy chocolate” scam story

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Is chocolate good for your diet? John Bohannon explains how he fooled the media into believing a phoney scientific study
science bohannon
Is chocolate good for your diet? John Bohannon explains how he fooled the media into believing a phony scientific study

You’ve probably read somewhere or heard that chocolate has been scientifically proven to be a healthy substance to eat, even if you want to lose weight. Turns out the widely publicized “scientific study” to validate that assertion was a “set up” by a journalist to prove how pseudo-science and media manipulation can provide a wholly distorted perspective of the truth.

You can read the story by John Bohannan in I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here’s How.

He writes:

“Slim by Chocolate!” the headlines blared. A team of German researchers had found that people on a low-carb diet lost weight 10 percent faster if they ate a chocolate bar every day. It made the front page of Bild, Europe’s largest daily newspaper, just beneath their update about the Germanwings crash. From there, it ricocheted around the internet and beyond, making news in more than 20 countries and half a dozen languages. It was discussed on television news shows. It appeared in glossy print, most recently in the June issue of Shape magazine (“Why You Must Eat Chocolate Daily,” page 128). Not only does chocolate accelerate weight loss, the study found, but it leads to healthier cholesterol levels and overall increased well-being. The Bild story quotes the study’s lead author, Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D., research director of the Institute of Diet and Health: “The best part is you can buy chocolate everywhere.”

I am Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D. Well, actually my name is John, and I’m a journalist. I do have a Ph.D., but it’s in the molecular biology of bacteria, not humans. The Institute of Diet and Health? That’s nothing more than a website.

Other than those fibs, the study was 100 percent authentic. My colleagues and I recruited actual human subjects in Germany. We ran an actual clinical trial, with subjects randomly assigned to different diet regimes. And the statistically significant benefits of chocolate that we reported are based on the actual data. It was, in fact, a fairly typical study for the field of diet research. Which is to say: It was terrible science. The results are meaningless, and the health claims that the media blasted out to millions of people around the world are utterly unfounded.

Then, in the extensive article, he explains how he pulled it off — with fee-paid scientific journals, a “real” study based on a small sample size that purportedly was statistically valid (but only if you understand how to really read the statistics), and a phony Institute.

Obviously, I hope no one in this industry will stoop to the level of creating fake scientific or engineering studies to prove a mythical assertion, but we can certainly learn from observing how stories that fit a the mould of expectations can fool us. There’s also a warning to be careful about journalistic assertions, even in generally reputable media. Sometimes journalists have the wool pulled over their eyes, as well (or they simply don’t bother checking the facts before publishing the “truth”.)

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