Not too long ago on my main Facebook page, I linked to this io9 article detailing just how author John Bohannon was able to not only get a fake study that “proved” that adding dark chocolate to one’s diet aids in weight loss, but also to get it picked up and carried by and into mainstream media and reported as scientifically valid.
Actually, that’s not quite a fair assessment. The study was valid, it’s just the resulting analysis and paper that were bogus. But anyway…
Here are a couple of quotes from the article:
These publications, though many command large audiences, are not exactly paragons of journalistic virtue. So it’s not surprising that they would simply grab a bit of digital chum for the headline, harvest the pageviews, and move on. But even the supposedly rigorous outlets that picked the study up failed to spot the holes.
Shape magazine’s reporting on our study—turn to page 128 in the June issue—employed the services of a fact-checker, but it was just as lackadaisical. All the checker did was run a couple of sentences by me for accuracy and check the spelling of my name. The coverage went so far as to specify the appropriate cocoa content for weight-loss-inducing chocolate (81 percent) and even mentioned two specific brands (“available in grocery stores and at amazon.com”).
So why should you care? People who are desperate for reliable information face a bewildering array of diet guidance—salt is bad, salt is good, protein is good, protein is bad, fat is bad, fat is good—that changes like the weather. But science will figure it out, right? Now that we’re calling obesity an epidemic, funding will flow to the best scientists and all of this noise will die down, leaving us with clear answers to the causes and treatments.
Or maybe not. Even the well-funded, serious research into weight-loss science is confusing and inconclusive, laments Peter Attia, a surgeon who cofounded a nonprofit called the Nutrition Science Initiative. For example, the Women’s Health Initiative—one of the largest of its kind—yielded few clear insights about diet and health. “The results were just confusing,” says Attia. “They spent $1 billion and couldn’t even prove that a low-fat diet is better or worse.” Attia’s nonprofit is trying to raise $190 million to answer these fundamental questions. But it’s hard to focus attention on the science of obesity, he says. “There’s just so much noise.”
You can thank people like me for that. We journalists have to feed the daily news beast, and diet science is our horn of plenty. Readers just can’t get enough stories about the benefits of red wine or the dangers of fructose. Not only is it universally relevant—it pertains to decisions we all make at least three times a day—but it’s science! We don’t even have to leave home to do any reporting. We just dip our cups into the daily stream of scientific press releases flowing through our inboxes. Tack on a snappy stock photo and you’re done.
I was reminded of this while watching the trailer for the 2014 documentary Merchants of Doubt. The film, directed by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Robert Kenner is based on the 2010 book of the same name by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Here’s a description of the book, subtitled How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, courtesy of Wikipedia:
It identifies parallels between the global warming controversy and earlier controversies over tobacco smoking, acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. Oreskes and Conway write that in each case “keeping the controversy alive” by spreading doubt and confusion after a scientific consensus had been reached, was the basic strategy of those opposing action. In particular, they say that Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, and a few other contrarian scientists joined forces with conservative think tanks and private corporations to challenge the scientific consensus on many contemporary issues.
And here’s the trailer:
Of course, we all should have our doubts whenever we see or read about one of these scientific studies or whenever we hear the phrase “teach the controversy”, but to have these things brought into such stark focus and brought so sharply out into the open is something that really should remind us all that all of these should be taken not just with a pinch, but more like a bucketful of salt.