A couple of weeks ago, I came across my favorite article of the year:
This article should be required reading by every student... every year. Non-students should be required to read it too.
I'll give you time to read it now. Got it? Good.
For the few people who still didn't take the time to read it, it is exactly what the title says it is.
A journalist decided to see if he could fool millions of people with bunk science and he did. Here's how:
1) He created a fake "institution" that sounded credible. He's also a doctor, but not a medical doctor as most people assume when they think doctor.
2) He ran a clinical trial on a small number of people testing for a lot of different things... essentially throwing poop at the wall to see what sticks. Statistically a few things are always going to stick.
3) He found a bunch of journals that sounded professional. They are known to publish anything plausible with almost no questions as long as they are being paid.
4) He cooked up a juicy press releasing the "results."
5) A bunch of magazines and news shows took the bait and rushed to highlight those great "results."
I bet there are millions people who today think that eating chocolate helps you lose weight.
The takeaway from the journalist himself:
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.
If there was a silver lining it was this: "... many readers were thoughtful and skeptical. In the online comments, they posed questions that the reporters should have asked."
I'm often asked why I cover MLM scams so much. One of the reasons is that this kind of junk science is used to push the pyramid scheme and get people to pay so much more than they should. Here are a few examples:
- MonaVie - The first time I encountered clear junk science was this "study." It used 5 people and essentially concluded nothing helpful. It was also conducted by a doctor who was employed as MonaVie's "Chief Science Officer."
- LifeVantage Protandim - I wish I could write about more about this... but this is why I can't.
What I can say is that you should be very careful of ABC Primetime videos you see. For example, ABC Primetime covereda faith healer named John of God, and edited out James Randi's clear explanations. It was a time in history when Primetime's ratings were at an all-time low. It seems like mystery is a better story and delivers better ratings than throwing a wet blanket of truth on it.
- Xocai - This company produced a study that would lead you to believe that their chocolate helps you lose weight. I'm not making this up. They had 50 people which is at least a little more. They gave them lifestyle intervention which included many things including financial rewards for people who lost the most weight. Of course they also gave them a high antioxidant chocolate drink. There was no control variable and the conclusion was that all the stuff together works.
Of course we already know that financial incentives help people lose weight. They could have added watching an episode of Seinfeld to the study and conclude that Seinfeld helps you lose weight too. Brainwashed Xocai people actually presented this to me as scientific proof that consumers should buy their chocolate.
Recently a law-firm contacted me about their class action lawsuit against Xocai. Their exposure of the pyramid scheme in the lawsuit (PDF) was amazing to read. I study MLMs and the lawsuit spends 50 pages on just the pyramid scheme aspect... not even getting to the junk science.
- Nerium - As one commenter pointed out via Nerium's study: "This will NEVER be published by a respectable journal it is so flawed. No P-value is listed. They don’t say what kind of blinded study it is and the bias is so obnoxious it is embarrassing. No self respecting company with 'real science' would ever put this out. Show me a triple blinded study with over 1,000 subjects in a multiple center design, with a P-value under .05%. Have the results measured with a cutometer or a corneometer. Then have it published in the JDD, the JAAD or any other reputable Dermatology Journal. Until then don’t believe any 'study' they put out."
The company conducting the study claims that they "help build a strong, science-based, product portfolio", which is exactly what it seems they did. The study was approved for publishing by someone who worked at the same place as one of Nerium's employees and author of the study.
You can usually go through each of the MLMs and see the "doctor" (or Chief Science Officer) who is compensated handsomely to assert that the products "work."
Ocean Spray doesn't need a doctor to sell its juice like MonaVie. Hershey's doesn't need a doctor to sell it's chocolate like Xocai.
Kudos to io9 for publishing this article and telling the story about how can be tricked. Now if only mainstream organizations would shine a light on some of the companies that are using the same tactics to trick consumers every day. Unfortunately, it takes a more work than just "dipping their cups into the daily stream of scientific press releases."
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