|Alma mater||University of Oxford (PhD)|
|Thesis||The role of the WSS operon in the adaptive evolution of experimental populations of Pseudomonas Fluorescens SBW25 (2002)|
|Doctoral advisor||Paul Rainey|
John Bohannon is an American science journalist and scientist who is Director of Science at Primer, an artificial intelligence company headquartered in San Francisco, California. He is known for his career prior to Primer as a science journalist and Harvard University biologist, most notably with his "Gonzo Scientist" online series at Science Magazine and his creation of the annual "Dance Your PhD" contest. His investigative journalism work includes:
Bohannon is involved in the effective altruism movement. In July 2015 he became a member of Giving What We Can, an organization whose members pledge to give at least 10% of their income to effective charities.
Bohannon completed his Doctor of Philosophy degree in Molecular biology at the University of Oxford in 2002, supervised by Paul Rainey. His doctoral thesis investigated the role of an operon in the adaptive evolution of populations of the bacterium Pseudomonas fluorescens and was supervised by Paul Rainey
Bohannon is Director of Science at Primer, a San Francisco, California, company that develops and sells artificial intelligence technology, started by his friend Sean Gourley. Before joining Primer, Bohannon was a contributing correspondent for Science Magazine and also wrote for Discover Magazine, Wired, The Guardian, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.
Bohannon has frequently reported on the intersections of science and war. He received a Reuters environmental journalism award in 2006 for his reporting on the water crisis in Gaza. In that year he also critiqued the Lancet surveys of Iraq War casualties. After embedding in southern Afghanistan in 2010, he was the first journalist to convince the US military to voluntarily release civilian casualty data.
Two of his later journalism projects are described below.
Main article: Who's Afraid of Peer Review?
In September 2013, Bohannon submitted a fake and very flawed scientific article to a large number of fee-charging open-access publishers, revealing that less than 40% were living up to their promise of rigorously peer-reviewing what is published. The spoof paper was accepted by 157 of the 255 open-access journals (61.6%) that said they would review it. This approach was criticized by some commentators, as well as by some publishers of fee charging journals, who complained that his sting only targeted one type of open-access journal and no subscription-based journals, damaging the reputation of the open access movement.
Under the pseudonym Johannes Bohannon, John Bohannon wrote a paper—"Chocolate with high Cocoa content as a weight-loss accelerator"—detailing a deliberately bad study that he had designed and run to see how the media would pick up the "meaningless" findings. He worked with film-maker Peter Onneken, who was making a film about junk science in the diet industry and how fad diets became headline news despite having terrible study designs and almost no evidence.
Bohannon's bogus study had a tiny sample size of 15 and measured 18 variables, almost guaranteeing an erroneously statistically significant result (false positive) due to random fluctuations in participant outcomes. He told a statistician to deliberately massage the data using overfitting and p-hacking. The study had other serious design flaws as well, but the erroneous conclusion was that eating chocolate could assist with weight loss.
Bohannon submitted the manuscript to 20 open-access publishers well known for their predatory journals and ended up being published in the International Archives of Medicine. He invented a fake institute, "The Institute of Diet and Health," to go along with his fake name, "Johannes Bohannon," and fabricated a press release which was picked by the German tabloid Bild, as well as "the Daily Star, the Irish Examiner, Cosmopolitan's German website, The Times of India, both the German and Indian site of the Huffington Post, and television news in the US and an Australian morning talk show."
The few journalists who contacted Bohannon (acting as Johannes) asked puff piece questions, and no reporter published how many subjects were tested or quoted independent researchers. Most outlets sought to maximize page views by including "vaguely pornographic images of women eating chocolate." Bohannon says:
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.
Bohannon's science journalism extended to his on-line "Gonzo Scientist" series at Science Magazine, where he adopted the "Gonzo Scientist" persona. As the Gonzo Scientist, Bohannon took "a look at the intersections among science, culture, and art -- and, in true gonzo style, [didn't] shrink from making himself a part of the story. The stories include original art and accompanying multimedia features." In Gonzo Scientist mode, Bohannon's research on whether humans can tell the difference between pâté and dog food led to Stephen Colbert eating cat food on the Colbert Report.
Main article: Dance Your PhD
Many Gonzo Scientist columns were devoted to advertising the Dance Your PhD competition, which Bohannon created in early 2008. The annual competition encourages scientists from all around the world to interpret their doctoral dissertations in dance form. Slate Magazine ran a profile on Bohannon and the competition in 2011.
Bohannon performed with the Black Label Movement dance troupe at TEDxBrussels in November 2011, where he satirized Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal by modestly proposing that PowerPoint software be replaced by live dancers. Bohannon then went on to perform with Black Label Movement at TED2012 in March in Long Beach, California. And, in April 2012, Bohannon presented on the Dance Your PhD contest at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS).
In 2015, Bohannon appeared on the "Adam Ruins Nutrition" episode of the Adam Ruins Everything truTV series. In 2016, he joined Adam Ruins Everything host Adam Conover on episode 5 of Adam's Adam Ruins Everything podcast series, "Science Journalism with John Bohannon," where he spoke about the fake chocolate study described above and discussed how fraudulent studies are created and promoted through mass media.