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Chocolate-Covered Junk Science and Candy-Coated Validation

From the Washington Examiner comes the story of Dr. Johannes Bohannon and his astounding study proving that eating a chocolate bar every day, while observing a low-carb diet, helps you lose weight:

Newsrooms around the world responded eagerly to Bohannon’s findings.

“Excellent News: Chocolate Can Help You Lose Weight!” Huffington Post India declared in a report.

The U.K.’s Daily Mail blared in a headline, “Pass the Easter Egg! New study reveals that eating chocolate doesn’t affect your Body Mass Index…and can even help you LOSE weight!”

The story continued to grow, with news of the sweet discovery spreading from the Internet to print and television. Even Europe’s highest-circulation newspaper, Bild, got in on the action, publishing a report titled “Slim by Chocolate!”

It was all a hoax, perpetrated by a journalist – his real name is John Bohannon, but part of the gag was to assume an extra layer of authority and mystery by claiming to be the head of a German research team. Bohannon does have a degree in molecular biology, so he was able to make his phony study look convincing. He whipped up a fake “organization” with an impressive name, the “Institute of Diet and Health,” went through the bare-minimum motions of performing a study, and fired off a salvo of press releases with enough fishy data and missing details to set off alarm bells for anyone who seriously investigated his claims.

Bohannon wanted to see how far he could get a hoax story into the media bloodstream. The answer is “all the way to the heart,” provided SCIENCE! is ritually invoked, and the conclusion is something that either fits established Left-media narratives, or seems titillating enough to harvest readers. The Washington Examiner stresses how this tabloid-worthy bit of nonsense sailed right through major media organizations which tout their fact-checking resources, and love to criticize alt-media outlets they don’t like as a pack of pajama-clad sensationalists who don’t know how to properly work up a story.

Not a single person double-checked his research, he said. No one sought comment from independent experts. No one asked him about possible inaccuracies in his work.

“I was kind of shocked at how bad the reporting is,” he said. “I didn’t realize how bad people who call themselves proper journalists are at covering this beat.”

The problem wasn’t unique to online publications eager for a few quick clicks, Bohannon said. Even reputable publications that employ fact-checkers skimmed over the details of his research.

“Right now, there’s absolutely no accountability,” he said. “The bulls— is just flooding. And it’s flooding out of these media venues and no one gets any push back.”

Bohannon shouldn’t have been quite so shocked by this. It’s not the first time a junk-science story has been hoaxed up to prove the media are suckers for such things. (Which is not to say Bohannon’s work is redundant or derivative – on the contrary, this sort of test should be performed with regularity, and the results widely reported, to make the public aware of just how easily Big Media can be manipulated.)

T. Becket Adams makes the point at the Examiner that while media and politicians are widely distrusted by the public, according to polls, SCIENCE! still enjoys a fairly high trust level. “It should come as no surprise, then, that the press would latch on to science to help it reestablish trust with viewers, which may explain the rise of self-proclaimed ‘nerds’ and ‘wonks’ in media,” he writes, giving several examples of media personalities who ostentatiously pretend to be nerdy, and deliver dubious political positions cloaked in the mantle of impartial science.

The current craze for “fact-checking” sites that deliver highly politicized results fits into that paradigm as well. “Fact-checkers” will bend over backwards to avoid giving bad ratings to obvious B.S. advanced by people they politically support, or simply refrain from “fact-checking” them at all, while parsing individual words with electron-microscope intensity when someone they don’t like gets into the headline news. A good deal of “fact-checking” product is nothing more than opinion writing disguised as a scientific report.

The junk-science craze isn’t just about appropriating the mantle of authority from actual scientists.  It’s a way of suppressing dissent – telling people to shut up because they’re not scientifically qualified to disagree with the mandatory opinion of the day. I don’t have to mention the cult of global warming, because everyone reading this thought about it several paragraphs ago.

The politicization of science corresponds with the gullibility of media, and it’s no coincidence, because Big Media is wrapped in an unbreakable symbiotic relationship with Big Government. They both have a deep vested interest in manufacturing crises, creating Big Problems that require Big Solutions, cooked up in political laboratories located conveniently near major media headquarters in a few power cities. Beyond the ideological alignment between the media herd and left-wing politicians, there’s a very simple convergence of interest: Big Media loves reporting on what Big Government does. Falsely invoking the authority of empirical science is the ignition system for the engine of centralization.

Adams describes one recent example at great length, the E.U. ban on a certain pesticide, which echoes the first great and deadly triumph of modern junk science: the DDT ban, which has killed more people than most wars, and was never based on anything but a fashionably lurid pseudo-scientific fantasy.

The lesson learned from the DDT saga was that junk science and junk politics work. They’re a powerful combination, especially in a world of pervasive mass-media, instant social-media freak-outs, emotion elevated over reason, and a public swimming in so much information that they’re desperate for lifeguards with the authority of impartial scientific truth.

It’s interesting that so many polls show cratering public trust in media and politics at the very same moment both the media and politicians are more powerful and influential than ever. I don’t think that means people are lying to pollsters, and they really trust the media-government axis more than they let on. I think it means they’re so desperate and confused that they’ll follow people they don’t really trust any more, especially if they think it would be unfashionably stubborn to ask too many skeptical questions. It’s not difficult to sell chocolate-covered junk science and candy-coated validation.

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