Why most reporting on medical research is crap

This spring, the journal “International Archives of Medicine” published a delicious new study: According to researchers at Germany’s Institute of Diet and Health, people who ate dark chocolate while dieting lost more weight.

The media coverage was instantaneous and jubilant:

Scientists say eating chocolate can help you lose weight” read a headline in the Irish Examiner.

Excellent News: Chocolate Can Help You Lose Weight!” Huffington Post India boasted.

Dieting? Don’t forget the chocolate” announced Modern Healthcare.

It was unbelievable news. And reporters shouldn’t have believed it.

It turns out that the Institute of Diet and Health is just a Web site with no institute attached. Johannes Bohannon, health researcher and lead author of the study, is really John Bohannon, a science journalist. And the study, while based on real results of an actual clinical trial, wasn’t aimed at testing the health benefits of chocolate. It was aimed at testing health reporters, to see if they could distinguish a bad science story from a good one.

In many cases, they couldn’t.

Bohannon, who revealed the stunt in an essay for i09 Wednesday, was part of a team of gonzo journalists and one doctor who wanted to, in Bohannon’s words, “demonstrate just how easy it is to turn bad science into the big headlines behind diet fads.”


Stephen By Stephen

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Professor and quant guy. Libertarian turned populist Republican. Trying to learn Japanese and play Spanish Baroque music on the ukulele.

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