How Scammers Distort Science

So why should you care? People who are desperate for reliable information face a bewildering array of diet guidance—salt is badsalt is goodprotein is goodprotein is badfat is badfat is good—that changes like the weather. But science will figure it out, right? Now that we’re calling obesity an epidemic, funding will flow to the best scientists and all of this noise will die down, leaving us with clear answers to the causes and treatments.

Or maybe not. Even the well-funded, serious research into weight-loss science is confusing and inconclusive, laments Peter Attia, a surgeon who cofounded a nonprofit called the Nutrition Science Initiative. For example, the Women’s Health Study—the largest of its kind—yielded few clear insights about diet and health. “The results were just confusing,” says Attia. “They spent $1 billion and couldn’t even prove that a low-fat diet is better or worse.” Attia’s nonprofit is trying to raise $190 million to answer these fundamental questions. But it’s hard to focus attention on the science of obesity, he says. “There’s just so much noise.”

You can thank people like me for that. We journalists have to feed the daily news beast, and diet science is our horn of plenty. Readers just can’t get enough stories about the benefits of red wine or the dangers of fructose. Not only is it universally relevant—it pertains to decisions we all make at least three times a day—but it’s science! We don’t even have to leave home to do any reporting. We just dip our cups into the daily stream of scientific press releases flowing through our inboxes. Tack on a snappy stock photo and you’re done.

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.

If a study doesn’t even list how many people took part in it, or makes a bold diet claim that’s “statistically significant” but doesn’t say how big the effect size is, you should wonder why. But for the most part, we don’t. Which is a pity, because journalists are becoming the de facto peer review system. And when we fail, the world is awash in junk science.


A case study where a scientist fooled the media, muddying the waters of nutritional information.

Folksonomies: pseudoscience junk science scientific process peer review nutrition

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Nutrition (0.953556): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Scientific method (0.938342): dbpedia | freebase
Peer review (0.808100): dbpedia | freebase
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Obesity (0.633630): dbpedia | freebase
Effect size (0.628280): dbpedia | freebase | yago
Pseudoscience (0.569554): dbpedia | freebase

 I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here's How.
Electronic/World Wide Web>Internet Article:  Bohannon, John (5/27/15 1:23pm), I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here's How., io9, Retrieved on 2015-05-28
  • Source Material []
  • Folksonomies: pseudoscience peer review