What The News Media Got Wrong About 'The Chocolate Hoax'
Earlier this spring, science journalist John Bohannon set out to show how easily shoddy nutritional studies can make their way into the media.
So, he conducted a study that was intentionally flawed — it included just 16 participants, for example — and paid to have the study published in a real, though questionable, journal with no peer review process. From there, he blasted out a press release from the “Institute of Diet and Health” (which he created himself) announcing the study’s conclusion: chocolate was found to accelerate weight loss.
The news media quickly jumped on the story, reporting the results without bothering to check sources, the so-called “institute,” or even the conditions of the study itself.
So Bohannon’s point was valid: the scientific review process can have huge holes in it, and the media’s reporting of scientific-sounding stories is often completely uncritical.
But as a result, the project has also created some problems.
Last year, I published a book titled Eat Chocolate, Lose Weight! The work draws from 121 references, along with real scientist interviews on the impact of high cocoa chocolate, cocoa, and the catechin polyphenols found in cocoa on cellular levels in humans and experimental animals.
In writing my book, I was restrained when interpreting results. I know the difference between correlation and causation, and the need to replicate research — one result does not a conclusion make.
But while my work on chocolate made sure the scientific Ts were crossed and Is were dotted, Bohannon’s purposely flawed study has inadvertently led to the general idea that chocolate + weight loss = false.
Ironically, one of the points of the Bohannon spoof was that once a dramatic idea makes its way into the media, it takes on a life of its own — and gets passed forward with little scrutiny.
This is exactly what is happening with the reporting of his hoax. The headlines largely reported on the news by linking the words “chocolate” and “weight loss” to “fake” and “hoax." Just a few examples: “How the ‘chocolate diet’ hoax fooled millions," from CBS News, "The study that claimed chocolate helps you lose weight? It’s fake," from MarketWatch and “A bogus study of chocolate and diets," as the LA Times put it.
And yet substantial and broad-ranging research actually shows that cocoa consumption can benefit many factors involved in maintaining a healthy weight.
But this aspect of the story was left out.
One reviewer on Amazon even cited Bohannon's fake chocolate study as evidence that my entire body of work on this was a sham: “So in the end, eating chocolate IS NOT proven to help you lose weight.”
But Bohannon's conclusion wasn't that chocolate can't help with weight loss — just that flawed studies often find their way into nutritional news.
For this reason, even the story of his hoax — itself designed to show that the media often report skewed versions of scientific news — has actually been erroneously reported as well. It's become a cartoon of itself.