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The Media Science

How a Scientist Fooled Millions With Bizarre Chocolate Diet Claims 260

__roo writes: Did you know chocolate helps you lose weight? You can read all about this great news for chocoholics in the Daily Star, Daily Express, Irish Examiner, and TV shows in Texas and Australia, and even the front page of Bild, Europe's largest daily newspaper. The problem is that it's not true. A researcher who previously worked with Science to do a sting operation on fee-charging open access journals ran a real—but obviously flawed—study rigged to generate false positives, paid €600 to get it published in a fee-charging open access journal, set up a website for a fake institute, and issued press releases to feed the ever-hungry pool of nutrition journalists. The doctor who ran the trial had the idea to use chocolate, because it's a favorite of the "whole food" fanatics. "Bitter chocolate tastes bad, therefore it must be good for you. It's like a religion."
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How a Scientist Fooled Millions With Bizarre Chocolate Diet Claims

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  • Heh. (Score:5, Funny)

    by Aaron_Pike ( 528044 ) on Thursday May 28, 2015 @11:15AM (#49791737) Homepage

    Schadenfreude is the best freude.

    • Re:Heh. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Penguinisto ( 415985 ) on Thursday May 28, 2015 @11:21AM (#49791795) Journal

      True, though it sadly proves P.T. Barnum's maxim, and says more about a gullible public, the lack of peer review in the field of nutrition (and worse, the sheer incompetence of so-called 'nutrition journalists' and 'specialists'), than it does about a science journal's shady/sloppy practices.

      Long story short, it exposes a hell of a lot more than just what the scientist initially wanted exposed.

      Maybe someone could do and publish a sociology study from it?
      (/me ducks and runs like hell...)

      • Re:Heh. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Thursday May 28, 2015 @11:54AM (#49792101)

        Mostly it exposes that people love to believe stories they like. And of course journalists love to publish stories that their readers like.

        I just don't think that qualifies as news, though.

        • by Jawnn ( 445279 )

          Mostly it exposes that people love to believe stories they like. And of course journalists love to publish stories that their readers like.

          I just don't think that qualifies as news, though.

          Perhaps not news, but as a topic worthy of consideration and discussion, you bet. Consider Fox News. It's veracity and accuracy are so poor that almost an entire industry has been built up around calling "bullshit" on so many of their "facts", and yet millions of viewers rely on it to help build their world-view every day. Those ratings wouldn't be there without Fox's heavy emphasis on "stories that people love to believe". Frankly, I find such phenomena fascinating, and often more than a little troubling.

        • Mostly it exposes that people love to believe stories they like. And of course journalists love to publish stories that their readers like.

          And it extends past publishing stories, to a business model built around telling people what they want to hear, like Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute or Al Gore.

      • Re:Heh. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by michelcolman ( 1208008 ) on Thursday May 28, 2015 @12:38PM (#49792461)

        The big problem is that everyone will now remember the fake study and continue to believe it, because the rectification doesn't get nearly as much coverage. People are still refusing to vaccinate children because they're afraid of autism even though the author of that study actually confessed having made the whole thing up.

        • Re: Heh. (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          It's not that they aren't aware that the author confessed, it's that they love to hear about "secrets that 'they' don't want you to know about" because there's a giant global conspiracy by this 'they' to keep poor people poor and make people sick for profit.

          I don't personally know an anti vaxer, but I'd wager that most of them who heard about the author confessing to a fraud believe that he was coerced by 'they' to admit it, and it really does cause autism after all.

          It's really the same reason why Greenpeac

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          People are still refusing to vaccinate children because they're afraid of autism even though the author of that study actually confessed having made the whole thing up.

          Ummm... no, he didn't. There were a couple of issues with the study, the primary one being that a temporal association between the administration of the vaccine and the onset of autistic enterocolitis should never have implied causality. The study was important because it identified the colon symptoms present in a subset of patients with ASD as a distinct disorder. But it was misinterpreted in the press, especially for a study where the primary findings involved only 12 patients.

          The main author never sig

      • And P.T. Barnum's legacy survived and is thriving in journalism.

    • Schadenfreude is the best freude.

      Certainly, and if you believe anything printed in the Bild (not a newspaper btw. but a picture-book/tabloid), you deserve nothing but Schadenfreude.

    • "Bitter chocolate tastes bad."

      Well, there's the fatal flaw indicator right there.

    • by billstewart ( 78916 ) on Thursday May 28, 2015 @09:31PM (#49795721) Journal

      There's really only one thing to eat while reading a story like this (other than Moar Chocolate, for Research Purposes.) It's Scalzi's Schadenfreude Pie. [scalzi.com] Dark, bitter, sticky, chocolately.

  • by turkeydance ( 1266624 ) on Thursday May 28, 2015 @11:19AM (#49791773)
    i just don't eat it.
  • "Bitter chocolate tastes bad, therefore it must be good for you. It's like a religion."

    Well, it works for brocoli [youtube.com]...

    • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

      but I like dark chocolate.
      I also like broccoli as well

  • TFA lays out a template for getting press for lousy research: publish a paper (doesn't matter where), create an institute and a website, write press releases that lazy journalists can copy almost verbatim. I don't see why this won't work for legitimate and useful science.

    • Because they also carefully pre-selected a result that would generate a desire in journalists to carry the story. Real science doesn't get to do that.

  • by metageek ( 466836 ) on Thursday May 28, 2015 @11:30AM (#49791873)

    The OP is wrong on this, the guy is a JOURNALIST not a scientist. (He may have a science degree but he acts as a journalist).

    If a scientist had done this they would be losing their job any minute. Any of the following would be enough to disgrace a practicing scientist (I am one):

    1- carrying out research on human subjects without approval of the study by an independent review board
    2- asking people to undergo a study that he knew before hand that was not beneficial to the subjects, in fact could likely be the opposite (this would mean he'd never get approval of the study)
    3- lying to people about his affiliation and credentials in the paper

    There are a lot of other problems with this "study", but it surely was not done by a scientist.

    What it does reveal is that people cannot rely on popular press stories about science as journalist pay no attention to the important details of publications and fall for any hype. Unlike what the guy says, journalist can never be "peer" reviewers of any science... their role is different and yet they are not doing it properly.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 28, 2015 @11:42AM (#49791985)

      0) Oh, he's not a scientist? He's doing fucking SCIENCE here. He had a hypothesis, conducted an experiment, published the fucking result. He created new information about the state of scientific journalism. But maybe you're confusing academics with science.

      1) Get real. There was no potential for harm. Your "review board" requirement raises the bar high enough to render unethical every science fair project ever done.

      2) Exactly like, for example, every control group, ever?

      3) That was the basis. Of. The. Study.

    • by captnjohnny1618 ( 3954863 ) on Thursday May 28, 2015 @11:44AM (#49792005)
      I think you misread the post (and/or the article).

      Yes, the author of the story is a science journalist. The "study" was intentionally bad to demonstrate the current sad state of "science journalism" (with an easy target like nutrition) where few of these journalists actually take the time to actually read the article, much less actually fact check on a critical, challenging or even marginally scientific level.

      So your final conclusion is exactly what he wanted to show: you can't blindly trust popsci journalism... but your methods for arriving there are a little roundabout.
    • Although, I see now that the original TITLE of the summary has been significantly change by "timothy" the editor to be a bullshitty clickbaity title that doesn't accurately represent the stories linked to. The summary is ok though, but still a little unclear. So it's easy to see where the confusion arises...

      I'm just going to start reading everything in the firehouse before timothy gets his sticky little fingers on it.
    • Not all scientists work for universities, you know. Also a pet peeve, "Scientist" with a capital S is not a thing, stop treating it as though it were. Scientists are not paladins, there is no gold standard of purity for scientists, no science deity will strip them of their powers if they don't follow some moral code. There are thousands of amoral scientists out there right now doing far worse things, mostly at the behest of governments and corporations.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward


        Scientist: Lawful Neutral
        HD d4
          BaB Fort Ref Will Special 0 1st
        1st +0 +0 +0 +2 "Summon Assistant, Scribe Scroll" 3 1
        Incurs casting penaly when not wearing white robe
        If a Scientist fails its alignment check, it loses all special abilities.

    • by AthanasiusKircher ( 1333179 ) on Thursday May 28, 2015 @12:05PM (#49792193)

      You're absolutely correct that this story is mostly about how we should distrust science journalism, and the author of the "study" makes that clear.

      However...

      If a scientist had done this they would be losing their job any minute. Any of the following would be enough to disgrace a practicing scientist (I am one):

      Yes, all of that is true. But I think you're exaggerating quite a bit about the impact any of this would have had on whether a study like this could have been done by a reputable scientist (it certainly could have been), or whether it would have been published if that scientist had appropriate credentials (as noted in the article, there are plenty of places to publish bad research with little vetting).

      2- asking people to undergo a study that he knew before hand that was not beneficial to the subjects, in fact could likely be the opposite (this would mean he'd never get approval of the study)

      The details of methodology in this study might have been changed a bit to get it approved by a review board, and there's certainly nothing about the basic idea of this study that suggests it would NECESSARILY (or even likely) have significant detrimental effects for the subjects. And there is certainly at least a possibility of beneficial effects.

      I suggest you have a look at some of the research articles linked even in an article of Wikipedia on the subject [wikipedia.org]. There have been dozens, and probably hundreds of studies that have tried to measure health effects of chocolate -- many of them have involved people eating small amounts of chocolate and observing effects, just as the study here did.

      So, the idea that an actual scientist, with the appropriate amount of time, could "never get approval of the study" is just ridiculous. As I said, there would probably be some more detailed methodological justification and tweaks, but lots of nutrition studies like this happen all the time.

      Unlike what the guy says, journalist can never be "peer" reviewers of any science... their role is different and yet they are not doing it properly.

      Yes, journalists have their own jobs to do, and there are certainly flaws in the system.

      But there are flaws in the science system too, which makes the job of journalists (and scientists trying to look at research out there and evaluate it) much harder. "P hacking" is not just something made up by this journalist -- it's a real thing, and it's a real problem. Yes, many reputable journals have tried to make review procedures better to avoid various statistical problems, but they often don't really fight them head-on (with a few notable exceptions of brave editors or boards). There are a LOT of problems with common statistical procedures followed by researchers -- even those who have proper credentials and have gotten independent reviews.

      Anyhow, most of your criticism boils down to "this guy wasn't credentialed to do what he did." That's great, but it doesn't address the larger flaws here -- not only in journalistic reporting, but in some aspects of scientific methodology. This study was clearly not rigorous, but I've seen worse studies published in reputable journals.

    • by taustin ( 171655 ) on Thursday May 28, 2015 @12:29PM (#49792389) Homepage Journal

      If a scientist had done this they would be losing their job any minute.

      Given that we're talking about the "nutrition" industry, if a scientist had done this, it would likely be his job. Specifically.

      That's the point.

    • "the guy is a JOURNALIST not a scientist. (He may have a science degree but he acts as a journalist).

      If a scientist had done this they would be losing their job any minute. Any of the following would be enough to disgrace a practicing scientist (I am one)
      [...]
      What it does reveal is that people cannot rely on popular press stories about science as journalist pay no attention to the important details of publications"

      Have you paid attention to the references, you mister scientist?

      At least one of the points of

  • by HornWumpus ( 783565 ) on Thursday May 28, 2015 @11:32AM (#49791887)

    WTF?

    Go eat your milk chocolate, fools. I'll take the 80% Madagascar coco bad bitter stuff, you can have the Cadbury/Hershies.

    • by halivar ( 535827 )

      80%? Bah! Would you like some cocoa to go with your milk and sugar? If a chocolate bar doesn't make me scrunch up my face and run for a glass of water, it's not enough!

      j/k; 80% is nice. But 90% is nicer.

    • by ArchieBunker ( 132337 ) on Thursday May 28, 2015 @12:36PM (#49792451) Homepage

      You guys are already ruining craft beer by flooding it with cheap IPA and ever increasing levels or bitter. Its not a pissing contest to see who can stand the most bitter chocolate or beer.

      • Yes! I have never understood this modern obsession with hops. Myself, I prefer a dark malty, fruity ale with some body, something like a good Belgian Dubbel is awesome. Only that's probably even more fattening than chocolate. That said, I do prefer dark chocolate to milk chocolate, the former being a little less sweet.
      • WTF? If you don't like hoppy IPAs just order something else. It's certainly not like the only craft beer that's available.

        • WTF? If you don't like hoppy IPAs just order something else. It's certainly not like the only craft beer that's available.

          While that's true, the percentage of hoppy IPAs (and similar styles) available on many beer menus has skyrocketed in the past decade or so [slate.com].

          Meanwhile, just about every craft dark beer (stout, porter, etc.) can't be sold unless it's brewed with some odd concoction of chocolate, coffee, herbs, and who knows what else. (I'm very sensitive to caffeine, so I don't want coffee in my beer, thank you.)

          If you don't like hoppy lighter beers or coffee-infused dark beers, in most bars you're stuck drinking some "cl

      • This. so much this. Buying beer in the Northwest kind of sucks at the moment due to hops.

    • 80% isn't really that dark...

  • Did you seriously just use a list of tabloids as an example of 'fooling millions'?

    If so, you must have been born yesterday since tabloids aren't exactly new and are in fact designed around 'fooling millions' on a daily basis.

    Just because they print a lot doesn't mean they're reputable news sources.

    Oh, and by the way, Katie Holmes is an alien. She didn't used to be, but Tom Cruise has her DNA manipulated by Xenu so now she's like the chick from Species. Its all over the cover of Daily Star.

    Its like you guy

    • by Holi ( 250190 )
      A movie, exactly, and tabloids are a bunch of hooey. Now please direct your gaze to my partner.
  • How dare a highly processed food made largely of fats, not be good for you.

  • This works 100% (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bogaboga ( 793279 ) on Thursday May 28, 2015 @11:38AM (#49791953)

    Forget all those so called diet plans.. The only thing I know that works is actually eating less. Many of my friends will not agree, but I wonder how one can gain weight by putting less calories in their system.

    • by swv3752 ( 187722 )

      At +- 100-200 Calories( really kilocalories)and less than 2000, preferably less than 1800 (at normal activity levels), Insulin levels play a bigger role than total calories. Insulin is a hormone and in addition to promoting cells to burn glucose, at high level it promotes cells to convert glucose to fat.

      There is a decided link to promoting eating more sugar and starch and the US population turning fat.

      • There is a decided link to promoting eating more sugar and starch and the US population turning fat.

        But, but, but The Government told us to eat more starches! So did all the Registered Dietitians! And Michelle Obama! I mean just look at the food pyramid. How could they all be wrong? It would have to be some kind of conspiracy for all the authorities to be so wrong on this.

        Are you some kind of conspiracy theorist?

    • By your body going into starvation mode. C'mon, it's not that hard to look up how to lose weight sensibly, it's all over the web. Some of those tips are even good. Hint: It's the ones that don't want to sell you their miracle cure crap.

      • by RedK ( 112790 )

        Starvation mode doesn't actually exist. Especially not if you're eating at least once a day. While your body can optimize some aspects of how it uses energy (which will result in you feeling like total crap as your breathing and heart rate slows even though your body needs more oxygen/blood flow to spread it), this won't be a drastic drop in calorie consumption to maintain your BMR (Basic Metabolic Rate).

        You cannot put on weight if you do not ingest the calories. Period. If you do, check yourself in to

    • Eating less... food that is not chocolate, you mean.

    • by sribe ( 304414 )

      Many of my friends will not agree, but I wonder how one can gain weight by putting less calories in their system.

      Endocrine disorder which totally mucks up metabolism, causing your body to metabolize muscle (including your heart, oh joy) and connective tissue, in order to create huge mounds of fat which are mostly water. It's called "Cushing's Syndrome".

      It is also EXTREMELY RARE, so yeah, in the vast majority of cases eating less and moving your ass more works just fine ;-)

      • by Holi ( 250190 )
        Ahh you added something the GP forgot. " moving your ass more works"
        Diets without exercise are destined to fail.
        • by sribe ( 304414 )

          Ahh you added something the GP forgot. " moving your ass more works"

          Heh, in my case I never even bother with the "reduce calories" part. Exercise has always been enough for me.

      • "Endocrine disorder which totally mucks up metabolism, causing your body to metabolize muscle (including your heart, oh joy) and connective tissue, in order to create huge mounds of fat which are mostly water. It's called "Cushing's Syndrome"."

        Yes, another case of "armchair nutritionist" coupled with reading comprehension problems.

        Unless the Cushing's Syndrome somehow implies termodynamics laws' violation, which I strongly doubt, I don't think you can increase *weight* simply by metabolizing tissues into fa

    • by cdrudge ( 68377 )

      ...or eat the same, but exercise more. Burn more calories than you consume. Or better yet, eat fewer calories and exercise more. Burn the obesity candle at both ends.

    • Taking less calories out. Many people who did sports and stop will gain weight while eating less.

  • As a matter of fact, the study itself seems to provide a positive result that, ironically, authors have used to discredit similar studies :)

    That said, from personal experience (as someone who lost 60 lbs by making changes to my diet) chocolate does have beneficial effect on weight loss, in that at a very least consuming smaller amounts of chocolate (in terms of calories) satisfies craving for sweets better than consuming much larger (in terms of calories) amount of other sweet foods (such as pastries). Just

    • by Nidi62 ( 1525137 )

      That said, from personal experience (as someone who lost 60 lbs by making changes to my diet) chocolate does have beneficial effect on weight loss, in that at a very least consuming smaller amounts of chocolate (in terms of calories) satisfies craving for sweets better than consuming much larger (in terms of calories) amount of other sweet foods (such as pastries). Just this benefit alone is sufficient to recommend (prudent) use of chocolate in a calorie-controlled diet.

      I lost 30lbs in 3 months in college once I was done playing football, and there were 2 main tricks that I used: I didn't keep lots of food in the apartment, and I changed how much I ate. I didn't cut anything out, just reduced portions (slight reductions for some, drastic reductions for others). If you cut something out completely like sweets, you will crave them and eventually break your diet and binge. Instead, keep a pack of fun-sized bars (well, for me it was whatever the seasonal-shaped Reese's was)

  • I trust Dr. Oz (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I trust Dr. Oz. He told me about this new miracle chocolate infused coffee bean oil that I could rub on my butt hole to make me loose weight. It's exclusively sold on his website and it really works. I mean, Dr. Oz wouldn't lie me, he's a Dr!

  • Gosh people believed what a scientist had to say... WHAT A STORY... next thing you know people will be taking their doctors advice! Scientists by and large are a trusted segment of the public, with the public having an understanding of the scientific process and that scientists CAN be wrong. That's how our information works. Researchers do experiments and publish results. News outlets pick up stories and broadcast them to a wider audience. If this disinformation had been allowed to just stand on it's own me
  • Seriously, BILD? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by nospam007 ( 722110 ) * on Thursday May 28, 2015 @12:17PM (#49792307)

    "and even the front page of Bild, Europe's largest daily newspaper. "

    That's the yellowest yellow rag existing. If it's in there, it must be wrong.

  • by steak ( 145650 ) on Thursday May 28, 2015 @12:40PM (#49792479) Homepage Journal

    _roo wins best pun category with "and issued press releases to feed the ever-hungry pool of nutrition journalists."

  • by NostalgiaForInfinity ( 4001831 ) on Thursday May 28, 2015 @12:52PM (#49792571)

    The problem is that it's not true.

    The fact that the study purporting for the hypothesis to be true was fake doesn't mean it's "not true", it means that we don't know whether it's true. In fact, the reason so many people believed it is that it's pretty plausible, at least if you stick to dark chocolate with little sugar content.

    People frequently make the same error even for valid scientific studies: "study X failed to show a difference between A and B" is not the same as "study X showed that there is no difference between A and B".

  • by ChromaticDragon ( 1034458 ) on Thursday May 28, 2015 @01:00PM (#49792679)

    This is a very strange article.

    I'm happy if folk are drawing attention to issues of statistics, flawed studies or ways one can inappropriately draw conclusions from relatively small data sets. Reminds me of the old adage "Figures don't lie... but liars do figure".

    But this seems to trivialize (or outright ignore) the actual purported benefits of cocoa. Why in the WORLD would it be acceptable to suggest "whole food" folk are fascinated with dark/bitter chocolate because of the weird idea that "since it tastes bad, it must be good for you". Is it really that hard to dig into the research, propaganda, whatever, in order to find out WHY folk are suggesting cocoa is good for you? Here's a clue. The dark/bitter chocolate is suggested not because it tastes bad (which is, of course an opinion - I like it dark) but because you have half-a-prayer of having more genuine cacao in such.

    Next, I must confess I was ignorant of any study or claim that eating chocolate would help one lose weight. Even if I heard of it, I almost certainly would have simply immediately discounted it because of a number of factors. It's just one study. Let peer review deal with it. It also smells too much like other factors predominate. You're on a low-carb, calorie controlled diet? If you ADHERE to those two requirements, you can probably eat whatever you want and lose weight. Caloric balance/control is within an order of magnitude all that matters.

    So, I may have an unwarranted perspective here. But it seems strange to get all excited about folk trouncing a study or argument I never heard of, nor would have respected to begin with. In essence, it seems like they're setting up a straw man to knock down.

    • You seem to have missed the point of this article: THERE WAS NO STUDY.

      The "researcher" made up a plausible but obviously flawed study and submitted it to a for-profit "science" journal. After passing the review process (e.g. paying $600) the paper was published and then picked up by news outlets which regurgitated the headline summary without looking at the write up enough to notice that it was flawed. The research here had nothing to do with chocolate.
      --
      JimFive
  • Girl buying a Kale drink (or some crap) talking to the cashier:

    "Yeah, it tastes like crap... but it's good for you!"

    lol

    For the record, I was there buying roses for my wife who's been away for a few weeks. They have the BEST prices around on fresh roses...

  • Did anyone pause to just look at the numbers?

    it's mostly fat and sugar. Neither of them are detrimental, of course, but one 100 g chocolate bar has something between a third and a quarter of daily calories. Do people realize what does that mean?

    and more interestingly, at least for the ritter sport i happened to have checked earlier today, the 73% cocoa variety has *more* calories than the 50% one. Initially one might be excused to think that it is weird... it is more bitter, how can it be less "healthy"? Do

    • NOT bringing your loved one at least some chocolate on Valentine's day can be bad for both your physical and emotional health. Negative physical effects can include sore back from sleeping on the couch to pneumonia from sleeping in the dog house, as well as bruising from flying saucers (and cups and plates and anything else handy) to not being able to have sex until you atone :-)
  • Anyone remember spinach? Or vitamin C?

  • I've gotta headline for you!

    Thousands of Scientists Fool Millions of People with Non-Reproducable Studies

"...a most excellent barbarian ... Genghis Kahn!" -- _Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure_

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