The Chocolate Hoax and Learning to Synthesize Information by Kelsey Vlamis

A few months ago, various media outlets reported on a study published by the International Archives of Medicine that came with a very awesome message: the daily consumption of dark chocolate accelerates weight loss! People everywhere, my own mother included, rejoiced at the idea of working chocolate into their daily diets. When my mom called to tell me the good news, I took it with a grain of salt and didn't think much of it. Truthfully, I was just excited to get my mom trying my favorite brands of fair trade, organic, and 80-90% cacao chocolate.

However, if the idea of chocolate accelerating weight loss sounds too good to be true, well, that's because it is. Shortly after making some noise in the media, it was revealed that all of these headlines were based on a poorly conducted study, carried out with the intention to prove just how easy it is to spread information based on junk science, particularly in the field of diet research. Hence, "the chocolate hoax".

For details on how this entire event was planned and executed, you can hear from John Bohannon, the journalist behind it all, on how he made it happen here. I highly recommend reading through his explanation, as it reveals some serious flaws committed by researchers and publishers alike, that often slip by unnoticed, only to be tightly packaged and sold to the media, and in turn the public.

Now, the most important question here to be asked is "so what"? I mean, it hardly seems fair--a supposedly peer-review-based journal posts a faulty study conducted by a supposed research institute, the media responds, and the public listens. Seems like a logical flow of events, right? After all, we are not all scientists, so how can we be expected to recognize bad science?

I agree, this is where things get tricky. As Bohannon writes,

"The only problem with the diet science beat is that it's science. You have to know how to read a scientific paper--and actually bother to do it."

I'll be the first to admit, this is not easy. I myself have a science degree and still can acknowledge that navigating your way through a scientific paper well enough to actually have an opinion on the science conducted, is quite frankly challenging.

Bohannon does offer some tips: "If a study doesn't even list how many people took part in it, or makes a bold diet claim that is 'statistically significant', but doesn't say how big the effect size is, you should wonder why." He goes on to say that when we don't ask these questions, we leave journalists to serve as the peer review system, and when the journalists fail, "the world is awash in junk science."

Ultimately, the purpose of this experiment was to encourage people, both journalists and the public, to be more skeptical. To ask more questions. To not believe everything you hear. With the creation of this blog, I also hope to encourage people to do this as well. To educate themselves on the information that is available to them, and to learn how to synthesize that information. To be a filter, not a sponge. To tell the difference between a dietary fad or far-reaching claim, from something that might actually carry some weight.

In the end, the best way for you to navigate the world of conflicting and confusing information when it comes to food, is to learn to be more skeptical, to pay attention to your source (and read multiple sources!), and at the same time remain open to innovation. I'll leave you with a Carl Sagan quote, as he is quoted in A.J. Jacob's book "Drop Dead Healthy":

"What is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas."

Here's to the scrutiny, and here's to the openness. Now let's have fun with both.