Are you confused by science reporting about health and nutrition? Have you given up listening to what the media reports about our diets and what foods are good (or bad) for us? If you answered yes, I’m not surprised, and I fear that reading this article will give you even less confidence in media reporting on these important topics. But I still think you should read it. John Bohannon explains the hoax he perpetrated with the help of some German researchers in a bid to illustrate how easy it is to dupe the media into publishing bad science. In brief, Bohannon did an actual scientific study that generated real results showing that eating a bar of dark chocolate every day accelerates weight loss – but his methodology was full of holes and his conclusions were weakly supported. Nevertheless, when he got his study published in a pay-to-play “science” journal that will take any study as long as the author pays the fee (an enormous problem itself and the topic of a future rant), and then released an accurate – but detail-scant – press release trumpeting his results, it was snapped up immediately and uncritically by media outlets throughout the globe and published with no scientific fact-checking.
The upshot? We need more critical thinking not just in our media but in media consumers. People need to be taught how to critically evaluate how a study was conducted and ask the right questions: what was the sample size? What statistical tests were used to calculate the results? How many parameters did the study measure? I realize that learning how to do this takes education and experience, but we need it. It’s not enough to rely on media outlets to do it for us when their bottom line is driven by clicks, shares, and page-views. And this article also illustrates why it is so unbearably easy for the unscrupulous purveyors of modern snake-oil to fool their customers with sophisticated nonsense. It’s a large part of the reason the anti-vaccine movement has any traction at all, why the Food Babe has any followers, and why homeopathic remedies have yet to be banned from store shelves. We have to learn for ourselves how to spot bad science.