Eat chocolate! Lose weight! Lie to everybody!
The first response to journalist John Bohannon’s latest sting operation against schlock science journals and schlock science journalists–publishing a paper claiming that a chocolate bar a day helps people lose weight–was a savory combination of glee and hand-wringing. Oh boy, (a) journal editors and (b) journalists are (a) lazy and/or (b) fools! Beginning with the cocky description from Bohannon hisownself at io9.
In a guest post at Retraction Watch, HealthNewsReview’s Gary Schwitzer notes that the hoax may only have fooled only a few, despite the io9 hed “I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss.” Schwitzer says, “Those few – whom I will politely call ‘journalists’ – did the rest of the fooling for him.”
But a number of bloggers saw the dark chocolate project quite differently. I’ll begin with Faye Flam because it’s in all our interests to see her return to blogging about science and science journalism. Now at Forbes, Flam was one of the gone-but-not-forgotten Knight Science Journalism Trackers, RIP. “His hoax seems unlikely to have fooled millions of people, but the viral story unveiling his trick may well have fooled millions of people into thinking he’d fooled millions of people,” Flam says. The hoax may seem to be one of those honest lies designed to foster public education and critical thinking. “But now Mr. Bohannon needs to show he really fooled millions if he wants to rise above the clickbait writing hucksters he’s trying to condemn.”
At Covering Health, Tara Haelle points out that Bohannon’s io9 piece was timed to coincide with release of the German documentary on fads and frauds in dieting he concocted the sting for. She also notes that few real journalists were stung. Those who consumed the chocolate hoax by and large did not qualify as journalists. To their credit, none of the MSM bit.
Haelle’s post also explores the question of whether Bohannon’s project was unethical. The study had no official ethics oversight, and it involved drawing blood, which always carries a small risk. Since the participants didn’t know the study was a fake, their consent to be studied was not–could not be–full consent.
Was the dark chocolate clinical trial ethical?
For her ethics discussion, Haelle draws heavily on Hilda Bastian, my colleague here at the PLOS Blog Network, who blogs at Absolutely Maybe. Bastian’s exhaustive post on the dark chocolate hoax deals in part with the question of whether the “clinical trial,” involving 15 living, breathing study subjects, was ethical. The trickery involved deliberately poor study design, data manipulation, and some obfuscatory treatment of author credentials. But the project didn’t just deceive journals and some journalists and (possibly) millions of people who read about it and have allowed themselves to believe that chocolate is a diet food. It deceived the research subjects.
That’s because the trial itself was genuine enough. The subjects altered their eating behavior as directed–at a certain amount of inconvenience to themselves (and damage to the weight-reduction diets they thought they were on.) Did the researchers come clean and undeceive them after the fact? Not clear.
Bastian’s post links to an even more exhaustive one by Harvard Law’s Michelle Meyer at The Faculty Lounge. Meyer’s post is largely an examination of the rules–and lack of rules–that govern human subjects research.
But she also points out that the dark chocolate hoax tells us nothing we didn’t already know. Bohannon professed to be surprised that some media were easily hornswoggled, a claim Meyer regards as balderdash. No science journalist could possibly be unaware of how much swill is written about junky science that pretends to flashy conclusions.
On the other hand, Meyer says, the general public, along with many non-science academics and policymakers “continue to disseminate and consume shoddy science, which—along with the fact that shoddy science is conducted and published in the first place, while careful replications and failures to replicate are more likely to collect dust in the proverbial file drawer—is an enormous problem, indeed, an enormous ethical problem. What we need are feasible solutions to make these groups aware of this problem, not more evidence of the problem that perversely contributes to the problem itself.”
More reasons for dismay about the dark chocolate hoax
An enormous amount of blogging has critiqued the chocolate diet project, but for the highest of dudgeon, it’s hard to top Chris Lee’s post at Ars Technica. He is upset in part about the deception of readers, arguing that all those people who search for fad diets “have been given yet another false data point and another failure to reflect upon.”
He is also furious at Bohannon and the filmmakers on professional grounds. Instead of concocting their own fake clinical trial, what they should have done, Lee says, was to unearth previous badly covered diet and health stories and confront the researchers and interview folks who believed what bad journalism told them.
The team “could have trapped reporters in their own laziness with these stories. But then they would have had to work harder to make the documentary interesting. Now, as I see it, we’ve been left with a lazy reporter that has made a documentary about lazy reporters.”
Here’s another reason for dismay. The denialists are using the dark chocolate hoax as evidence that neither journalists nor journals can be trusted on climate change and global warming either.
Anthony Watts turned over his climate-change denialism blog Watts Up With That? to guest blogger Howard Booth, who called Bohannon’s io9 post “an interesting peek into the terrible state of the scientific publishing process, and the media’s inability to hold scientists accountable.” Booth followed up with another Watts Up post describing Bohannon’s well-known sting of 2013, in which he submitted a fake paper to journals and 157 of them accepted.
More evidence of the terrible state of the scientific publishing process–and, by implication, a declaration that what scientists publish about climate change and global warming is not to be trusted.
That fake Science paper about attitudes toward gay marriage, cont’d
Brief update on events since last week’s On Science Blogs post about the notorious and now-retracted Science study purporting to show that people’s opposition to gay marriage could be turned around by talking with an advocate. The first author, Michael LaCour, has issued his defense. I hope you will not be surprised to learn that no one believes it.
Retraction Watch described LaCour’s response, noting his claim that the data supporting the paper don’t exist now because they were destroyed due to “institutional requirements.” There are a number of reasons for doubting those data ever existed.
At Discover, Neuroskeptic goes over some of the Broockman et al critiques of the Science paper discussed here last week. The conclusion: LaCour’s response has failed to refute them.
At Science of Us, Jesse Singal notes that LaCour’s response has nothing to say about the fact that the survey company LaCour claimed to have used says he didn’t, and the employee he claimed to have dealt with does not exist.
At Vox, Julia Belluz uses the events to argue that fraud like this is not just the result of a few bad apples, but grows out of structural flaws in the scientific process itself. For example, the pressures to keep quiet about fraudulent work are immense. David Broockman says he was repeatedly warned not to raise questions about the gay marriage paper lest he be seen as a troublemaker or worse.
And then there is the paper’s topic and its heartwarming conclusion. There is a powerful desire to embrace its findings. Denouncing the paper feels like trying to fight the overwhelming political tide favoring gay marriage. Or being against the entrancing idea that rational discussion is a tool for solving policy problems.
Which of us would not prefer to believe that prejudice can be overcome by reasoned discourse?