The Chocolate Diet Hoax


First do no harm

There’s something creepy if you have to lie to get what you want.

So it bothers me when someone gets trapped into doing something she might not do without a nudge.

For example, Portland took the national stage over Christmas in 2010 when a teenager was seduced in an FBI sting operation that made him think he could blow up a piece of Portland.

The teenager was found guilty after trying to ignite a fake bomb downtown and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Was he nudged?

Headlines this week announced that a “researcher” scammed the press by claiming that eating a chocolate bar daily would help you lose weight.

The researcher is actually a writer with a history of duping the media and scientific journal editors with hoaxes.

The most recent fib was aimed at showing how reporters will print nonsense disguised as scientific evidence if it’s titillating

Here’s what happened.

John Bohannon teamed up with researchers who studied eating patterns and weight loss over a three-week period.

They recruited only 16 people—too small a sample for statistical rigor—and even smaller when you consider volunteers were divided into 3 groups for the study.

Scientists didn’t fake the data—at least, that’s what Bohannon claims—but showered the study with so many variables that “you are almost guaranteed to get a statistically significant result,” he admits in his blog.

The study design “is a recipe for false positives,” Bohannon adds.

The team actually got the study published in the International Archives of Medicine for a fee of 600 Euros ($658 US), seemingly without peer review because it was published verbatim [the manuscript has since been taken off the publication’s website].

Once the study was published, Bohannon set out to cuckold the media.

In March he pulled out the stops with a flashy news release claiming “significant” findings in a newly published study that showed folks who ate chocolate lost weight compared to folks in 2 other diet groups.

He even created fake letterhead for the invented Institute of Diet and Health that released the story called Slim by chocolate, which claimed chocolate-eaters lost 10% more weight than their counterparts.

And yes, the story was picked up by news outlets around the world, claiming that “Those who eat chocolate stay slim!”

Once the story ran its course over several weeks, Bohannon grabbed an encore by announcing he scammed readers, viewers, editors and writers.

This past week he revealed the hoax.

Bohannon’s gleeful headline shouts from his blog:

I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here’s How.

Bohannon confessed the scheme, which, in turn, generated its own avalanche of news articles in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Independent (UK), NPR, CBS, and more.

Is it any wonder that people distrust reporters? Scientists? Teachers?

Lies like this one diminish all of us and cause harm.

Some will take a Machiavellian view–that the ends justify the fibs—just like the entrapment of a teenager in Portland justifies an FBI sting.

I prefer to put my faith in the Buddhist precept to refrain from falsehood altogether.

Today’s blog is dedicated to the students in my propaganda class whose insights continue to amaze me.



About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in framing, health, journalism, science, science communication, scientific hoax, social media, writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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