Tag Archives: science journalism

A journalist and filmmaking team fake a study and the press buys it

The uncertainty of science journalism: How a science journalist and two documentary filmmakers fooled millions (and many science journalists) into thinking that eating chocolate will help you lose weight.

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.

He then describes step by step how they did it. They even got their “research” published in a journal that claimed it did peer review but did not change one word of their submitted manuscript and published it less than two weeks after submission and the receipt of their money (science journals traditionally require authors to pay them for the honor of publication). In the end,

We landed big fish before we even knew they were biting. Bild rushed their story out—”Those who eat chocolate stay slim!”—without contacting me at all. Soon we were in the Daily Star, the Irish Examiner, Cosmopolitan’s German website, the Times of India, both the German and Indian site of the Huffington Post, and even television news in Texas and an Australian morning talk show.

The American women’s magazine Shape also fell for the fraud.

To me, the main reason the fraud worked was because none of the journalists involved ever bothered to actually read the science paper. They saw the press release, thought the story was cool, and simply rewrote the release. This is what happens repeatedly in the science field, and is why so much crap about climate science gets published. Too many reporters accept verbatim the claims of the scientists, doing no research to check the facts on which those claims were based.

I should mention also that John Bohannon, the man who played the scientist in this prank, also ran a sting operation against peer review journals in October 2013, creating a bogus paper and getting 157 journals to accept it for publication.