There's no way to sugarcoat it, media fell for fake choc story
Sorry to report, but it's been a bit of a chastening week for some journalists, particularly of the science variety. It has emerged that many outlets were conned by a spoof weight loss study that produced headlines such as 'Chocolate makes your waist shrink'.
It was published by national newspapers, websites and television channels in 20 countries and in half-a-dozen languages. There were, however, some honour- able exceptions who turned it down (it wasn't offered to us). Embarrassingly, however, it was picked up by the German tabloid Bild, Mail Online and many more.
So what's the background? On September 29 last year a rash of headlines proclaimed a study had shown that eating a chocolate bar each day could help you lose weight. But last week it emerged the 'study' was a con for a TV documentary. The person behind the spoof was John Bohannon, a science journalist and Harvard University molecular biologist, who was working hand-in-hand with two German reporters.
Irritated by dubious headlines regularly seen on health research stories, the trio set up a bogus science institute and recruited a statistician, a GP and 16 participants for a very small 'clinical trial'.
The 16 in the group followed various diets, and one in particular involved cutting down on carbs but also eating a daily bar of dark chocolate. The conmen were able to use a statistical technique called p-hacking to get a false positive data set that suggested a correlation between weight loss and this group, thanks to the tiny sample and high error range.
They wrote up a pseudo-scientific paper filled what should have been obvious warning signs - tiny sample size, poor sampling practices, the fact that the Institute of Diet and Health was only a few months old and that Dr Bannon's PhD was in an unrelated scientific field, to name but a few.
This paper was sent to an open access journal that charged them $600 for "peer review". It was then published verbatim in the International Archives of Medicine.
After that, PR agents were recruited to write up 'link bait'-type internet headlines, and, bingo, a prank made headlines around the world, from Bild to The Times of India and beyond.
The prank was a brilliant joke with a jag. First of all, it reminds us that lazy reporting is easy to unmask. And also that much of the stuff in the public domain about nutrition is guff. Sober science and the art of the great headline can make uncomfortable bedfellows, clearly.
It also exposed the sham that exists at the heart of the publication of some science papers, with money exchanging hands and the "peer review" system entirely unreliable. This for me was the most shocking revelation.
It was admittedly a well-crafted hoax, but journalists need to be alert even to scams ranging from the sophisticated to the simple. I once received a phone call on the Belfast Telegraph newsdesk from a woman who said Queen's had omitted her name from the summer list of graduations and asked if I could add it in to the paper's list of graduands.
I called the university: the person concerned hadn't passed - it was a crude attempt to have the name published in the graduate list. Was it a student hoping to fool an employer or parents? Or perhaps a pushy mother or even a malicious hoaxer? We'll never know the truth.
The moral of the choc bar diet story is that science hacks and headline writers need to be as sceptical as everyone else.
A touch of cynicism can be healthy - although there's no need to go as far as a legendary American reporter who, rumour had, was so sceptical that when his mother told him she loved him he felt an irresistible urge to go out and find two independent sources to verify her claim.