Chocolate Makes You Thin? Science Journalist Spreads Lie To Prove A Point, Millions Fall For It

Various news outlets are often accused of spreading lies, or at least false information. While these claims are often exaggerated, one too-good-to-be-true claim turned out to be exactly that — a flat-out lie. A news headline was making the rounds with a triumphant announcement: chocolate makes you thin. The claim was reportedly based on a study by the so-called Institute of Diet and Health, and even had clinical trial results on chocolate to back it up. But it was all an elaborate hoax orchestrated by the author to put the media to the test.

According to the Washington Post, major reputable news sites like the Huffington Post and the Irish Examinerfell for the claim that chocolate makes you thin, sporting headlines like “Scientists say eating chocolate can help you lose weight” and “Excellent News: Chocolate Can Help You Lose Weight!” Even a health-based site called Modern Healthcare was duped on the chocolate issue. So what happened?

The scheme was devised by John Bohannon, a science journalist who, under the name Johannes Bohannon, wrote the story claiming chocolate makes you thin. Calling himself a health researcher and the author of a serious dietary study, Bohannon used real results from a legitimate clinical trial to suggest that chocolate has significant health benefits. But the advantages of chocolate were exaggerated. The journalist used the common data-tampering trick by measuring a “large number of things about a small number of people” to give the illusion of a “statistically significant” result in favor of chocolate.

John Bohannon explained his motives behind the hoax in an essay he wrote for io9 called “I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here’s How.” The whole purpose of the “chocolates makes you thin” lie was to show how frequently news coverage fails to investigate scientific claims, often reporting false data as real science.

“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. For far too long, the people who cover this beat have treated it like gossip, echoing whatever they find in press releases. Hopefully our little experiment will make reporters and readers alike more skeptical.”

According to News Maine, the fake chocolate story fooled so many people that discussions about how chocolate makes you thin prompted discussions on television programs.

Bohannon was hired to falsify the chocolate study by German documentary filmmakers Peter Onneken and Diana Löbl, who are making a film about the bad science that takes place in the diet and health industry.

“I know people who have gone on diet fads and it has done them no good,” Bohannon told the Washington Post.“It’s all cloaked in the mantle of science and it’s really troubling. I was ready for taking on the diet industry … for showing how they treat it like lifestyle material rather than real science.”

What’s even more disturbing about the chocolate story is that an impossible headline like “Chocolate makes you thin” is not uncommon, according to Bohannon.

“It was, in fact, a fairly typical study for the field of diet research. Which is to say: It was terrible science. The results are meaningless, and the health claims that the media blasted out to millions of people around the world are utterly unfounded.”

For actual news on chocolate, read about the black bear who broke into a Florida home just to eat some chocolate.

[Image credit: Getty]