Delicious lies

In case you haven't seen it by now, the guy who in 2013 busted open the science journal peer review process by getting some pretty ridiculously faulty "studies" published has done it again, though this time it was journalists and editors he was humiliating. And, some might argue, everyday people hoping to lose a few pounds.

John Bohannon worked with researchers in Germany to conduct a study of whether eating a chocolate bar every day might aid in weight loss. It was a real study in that they gathered information from real subjects and examined actual data. But it wasn't a careful study and it didn't adhere to all best practices, such as control group monitoring and sober explanation of "statistical significance." None of this featured in the press release Bohannon and his accomplices sent out, of course, and many news outlets were duped. In his piece on io9, Bohannon gleefully points out how lazy reporters were in writing about his study, most of them simply echoing the press release and assuming the veracity of its headline, and how few asked any "real" questions. A documentary by the German researchers that includes this study will be released soon.

If you've been reading this blog for a while you probably know how interested I am in health journalism and the most responsible ways to do it. I had a discussion about this story with my editor and it reminded me to be vigilant no matter what I'm reporting on. Some people were offended by the whole project, however, arguing that fooling "millions" of people via an experiment in which the participants' informed consent was questionable shouldn't be lauded. It's just "a lazy reporter that has made a documentary about lazy performers," writes physicist Chris Lee.

I can see both points. It's important to expose the laziness and misleading reporting being done about health and science, but what about the collateral damage? And is dishonesty really the best way to encourage others to be more honest? This has been an issue almost since the advent of journalism; reporters and writers have been "going undercover" and fibbing in other ways to get stories for generations. I'm not sure how I feel about it in this instance. The effect of this experiment will be hard to gauge - he didn't really fool that many publications and we'll never know how many people started eating more chocolate daily in hopes of losing weight faster. But I think it gives us something useful to talk about as journalists. Even if we disagree about Bohannon's methods, hopefully veracity and honesty will be pushed back closer to the top of our minds, something to chew on while we work.