Green Watch September 2015: Bee-mageddon, Magic Chocolate, and Bad Reporting on Science: Junk science beats real science in newsrooms and in the halls of power

Green Watch

Bee-mageddon, Magic Chocolate, and Bad Reporting on Science
Junk science beats real science in newsrooms and in the halls of power [PDF here]

By T. Becket Adams

Summary: Bad scientists and bad journalists team up to use junk science—scientific claims that are unsupported by the facts—to mislead the public and exploit people’s fear. For this, society pays a high price. Pesticides and genetically modified foods get banned for no good reason, which leads to higher prices for food (hurting poor people worst of all). Baseless concerns over vaccination help spread infectious disease. The checks-and-balances that are supposed to protect us from junk science are broken, and there is a critical need for reform.

The next time you read an astonishing news report based on the latest scientific study, and you think, “They can’t make this stuff up!”—you should reconsider.

They can, and do, make stuff up.

Last spring, Dr. Johannes Bohannon and a team of German scientists discovered that people on low-carbohydrate diets could lose weight faster if they ate a bar of chocolate every day.

Newsrooms around the world responded eagerly to Bohannon’s findings. “Excellent News: Chocolate Can Help You Lose Weight!” declared Huffington Post India. The U.K.’s Daily Mail blared in a headline, “Pass the Easter Egg! New study reveals that eating chocolate doesn’t affect your Body Mass Index…and can even help you LOSE weight!” In the United States, Modern Healthcare advised: “Dieting? Don’t forget the chocolate.”

The report leaped around the world, with news of the sweet discovery spreading from the Internet to print and television. Even Europe’s highest-circulation newspaper, Bild, got in on the action, publishing a report titled “Slim by Chocolate!”

Journalists and readers looked past the too-good-to-be-true nature of the findings and devoured the story wholesale.

As you may have guessed, Bohannon’s research was a hoax.

Chocolate not the key to weight loss
The health study was fabricated; it was a test of the hypothesis that scientists and reporters rarely detect junk science.

No one caught onto the ruse.

“Our point was not that journalists could be tricked by fakers, but rather that scientists themselves in this field and other fields are making the kinds of mistakes that we made on purpose,” said Bohannon, a journalist whose real first name is John and who holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology. “This whole area of science has become kind of corrupted by really poor standards between scientists and journalists.”
He told the Washington Examiner that his interest in the project was rooted in personal experience. His mother [Click HERE for the rest of the story]

 

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