Attempt to shame journalists with chocolate study is shameful

Rachel Ehrenberg in Science News:

Culture_chocolate_flickr_free“I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here's How.”

That’s the headline on a May 27 article by science journalist John Bohannon that revealed the backstory of a sting operation he conducted earlier this year. Bohannon and a German television reporter teamed up to “demonstrate just how easy it is to turn bad science into the big headlines behind diet fads.” So they recruited subjects and ran a small clinical trial purporting to test whether eating dark chocolate helped people lose weight. The team used real data from their real trial and published their results in a real (non peer-reviewed) journal, the International Archives of Medicine. The study did find an effect, but that was likely due to a statistical sleight-of-hand; it was impossible to say whether chocolate really helped people lose weight.

To lure reporters into covering the flimsy research, Bohannon and his colleagues ginned up a press release describing their chocolate results. The team sent the release out via Newswise, a site that aggregates press releases and distributes them to some 5,000 journalists. And some of those journalists took the bait.

From the big headline on Bohannon’s piece describing the con, you might think that it was a roaring success. But the “millions” that Bohannon and his partners-in-crime fooled weren’t millions of reporters, but millions of regular people, the consumers of journalism, who believed the reporters covering his study. Not only was Bohannon’s con ethically reprehensible — he lied to the public, undermining their trust in both journalism and science — but also Bohannon is guilty of the very practices he claims he exposed.

More here. [Thanks to Jennifer Oullette.]