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Sorry, That Paper Linking Chocolate To Nobels Really Is A Prize-Season Joke

This article is more than 10 years old.

This is so embarrassing, but I have to confess that I had a moment of doubt. Maybe this was a real paper in the august New England Journal of Medicine? Maybe a researcher was seriously arguing that eating more chocolate may lead to winning more Nobel prizes?

I blame my briefly idiotic credulity on the endless parade of really questionable papers that come out all the time (in lesser journals, of course!) linking various foods and behaviors to slightly greater or lesser risks and benefits. Blueberries for brains, raspberries for cancer prevention, gooseberries for weight loss — you know.

So I'm happy to report that I have on very good authority that no, really, the paper "Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function, and Nobel Laureates" is in fact utterly tongue-in-cheek, a bit of the New England Journal's humor. This could prompt great relief in some Latin American circles, where, according to the ever-fascinating Knight Science Journalism Tracker, some reporters took the study seriously:

It’s a mystery why the New England Journal of Medicine published the silliest study correlating a country's chocolate consumption with chances to win a Nobel prize. The study even suggests that Nobel Panel may have a "patriotic bias" because according to its consumption of chocolate, Sweden should have produced only 14 Nobel prize winners yet it had 32. We’ve seen three different reactions in the Spanish speaking press: 1) the majority of serious outlets have simply ignored the study, 2) Some have joked about it and compared to other associations like sun spots and male depression, and 3) many reporters took it seriously, they bought the flavonoid’s argument, and without any critical spirit they told their readers that “eating chocolate increase the possibilities of winning a Nobel prize”.

Sigh. A little humor can be a dangerous thing. And just for the record, yes, the argument is a joke, but the data — such as they are — and the statistical analysis in the chart below are accurate. Though naturally a bit incomplete; the NPR report on the study prompted this commenter's query: "My only question: how many Nobel winners have there been from Hershey PA?"

chocolate nobel chart
(The New England Journal of Medicine ©2012.)

This program aired on October 15, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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