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Bad science exposed

By JAMES COAKES Published 1st Jun 2015
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Bad science, counter-intuitive 'news', dubious headlines, superficial studies, and downright fraud. These are all common problems in today's media, and as a result trust in the media is at an all time low.

Dr John Bohannon, a science journalist and Harvard University molecular biologist, decided to demonstrate the problem by creating a deliberately misleading 'study' that any investigative journalist worth their salt should have seen right through. Prepare to be less than amazed to find out that many did not.

Bohannon, along with two television reporters, founded the entirely fictitious Institute of Diet and Health and recruited a GP and a statistician. They then found 16 people who were prepared to take part in a trial. They split the participants into groups with one set cutting their carbohydrate consumption but eating a daily bar of dark chocolate.

Using a broad range of measurements over three weeks they were able to establish a set of figures that appeared to indicate that eating chocolate made you lose weight. In statistical study terms this is known as a false positive and in basic studies it is often the strategy when parties with an agenda want to 'prove' a point. In this case the very small sample size along with the made up Institute and the completely counter-intuitive findings should all have acted as red flags.

So, they had their study and now they needed to give it authority. They submitted their paper to several academic journals which published it without peer review or editing. The robust sounding International Archives of Medicine, for example, published the study ... in exchange for a fee of 600 euros.

They released their findings in a press release in September of last year. Bild, a leading German newspaper ran the story as fact. In the UK, where the tabloid genre is more prevalent, The Daily Star, Mail Online, the Daily Express and The Huffington Post were among those who swallowed the hollow chocolate bait.

If you have a sense that many of the stories which claim to be founded on scientific fact are actually a load of codswallop then you are probably right. Look for studies that are controlled and have been peer reviewed and, whatever you do, do not get your knowledge from tabloid newspapers.

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