John Bohannon

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John Bohannon
John Bohannon in Libya in 2007 (cropped).png
John Bohannon in Libya in 2007
Alma materUniversity of Oxford (PhD)
Known for
Scientific career
ThesisThe role of the WSS operon in the adaptive evolution of experimental populations of Pseudomonas Fluorescens SBW25 (2002)
Doctoral advisorPaul 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.[1] He is known for his career prior to Primer as a science journalist and Harvard University biologist,[3] most notably with his "Gonzo Scientist" online series at Science Magazine[4] and his creation of the annual "Dance Your PhD" contest.[5] 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.[11]


Bohannon completed his Doctor of Philosophy degree in Molecular biology at the University of Oxford in 2002, supervised by Paul Rainey.[12][13][14] 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 [Wikidata][12]

Career and research[edit]

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.[15][1] Before joining Primer, Bohannon was a contributing correspondent for Science Magazine[15] and also wrote for Discover Magazine, Wired, The Guardian, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.[16]

Investigative science reporting[edit]

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.[17] In that year he also critiqued the Lancet surveys of Iraq War casualties.[6][7] After embedding in southern Afghanistan in 2010, he was the first journalist to convince the US military to voluntarily release civilian casualty data.[18]

Two of his later journalism projects are described below.

Who's Afraid of Peer Review?[edit]

In September 2013, Bohannon submitted a fake and very flawed scientific article to a large number of fee-charging open-access publishers,[8][9] 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.[19] 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.[20][21][22][23]

Intentionally misleading chocolate study[edit]

The chocolate study. Click for bigger version and original PDF file.

Under the pseudonym Johannes Bohannon, John Bohannon wrote a paper—"Chocolate with high Cocoa content as a weight-loss accelerator"[24]—detailing a deliberately bad study that he had designed and run to see how the media would pick up the "meaningless"[10] 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.[10]

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.[10]

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.[10] 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[25] 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."[10]

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.[10] Most outlets sought to maximize page views by including "vaguely pornographic images of women eating chocolate."[10] 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.[10]

Gonzo Scientist[edit]

Bohannon's science journalism extended to his on-line "Gonzo Scientist" series at Science Magazine, where he adopted the "Gonzo Scientist" persona.[4][26] 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."[4] 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.[27]

Dance Your PhD[edit]

Many Gonzo Scientist columns[28][29] were devoted to advertising the Dance Your PhD[30] competition, which Bohannon created in early 2008.[5][31] 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.[5]


Bohannon performed with the Black Label Movement[32] 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.[33] Bohannon then went on to perform with Black Label Movement at TED2012[34] in March in Long Beach, California.[35] And, in April 2012, Bohannon presented on the Dance Your PhD contest at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS).[36]

In 2015,[37] Bohannon appeared on the "Adam Ruins Nutrition" episode of the Adam Ruins Everything truTV series.[38] 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.[38]


  1. ^ a b c "Who We Are". Primer. Archived from the original on 4 September 2018. Retrieved 4 September 2018.
  2. ^ "John Bohannon". Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Archived from the original on 9 October 2018. Retrieved 9 October 2018.
  3. ^ a b "John Bohannon". Harvard University Program in Ethics & Health. Harvard University. Archived from the original on 15 October 2017. Retrieved 15 October 2017.
  4. ^ a b c "The Gonzo Scientist". Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Archived from the original on 3 September 2018. Retrieved 3 September 2018.
  5. ^ a b c Weingarten, Elizabeth (20 October 2011). "You Move Like a Sex-Crazed Fruit Fly". Slate. The Slate Group, a Graham Holdings Company. Archived from the original on 28 February 2017. Retrieved 28 February 2018.
  6. ^ a b Bohannon, John (2006). "Epidemiology: Iraqi Death Estimates Called Too High; Methods Faulted". Science. 314 (5798): 396–7. doi:10.1126/science.314.5798.396. PMID 17053114. S2CID 21039672.
  7. ^ a b Burnham, G.; Roberts, L.; Bohannon, J. (2006). "A Debate over Iraqi Death Estimates". Science. 314 (5803): 1241b. doi:10.1126/science.314.5803.1241b. PMID 17124305. S2CID 206578274.
  8. ^ a b Bohannon, John (4 October 2013). "Who's Afraid of Peer Review?". Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science. 342 (6154): 60–5. doi:10.1126/science.342.6154.60. PMID 24092725.
  9. ^ a b Bohannon, John (2013). "Who's Afraid of Peer Review?". Science. 342 (6154): 60–65. doi:10.1126/science.342.6154.60. PMID 24092725.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i Bohannon, John (27 May 2015). "I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here's How". io9. Gizmodo Media Group. Retrieved 5 October 2018.
  11. ^ "Members". Retrieved 2020-10-09.
  12. ^ a b Bohannon, John (2002). The role of the WSS operon in the adaptive evolution of experimental populations of Pseudomonas Fluorescens SBW25. (DPhil thesis). University of Oxford. EThOS
  13. ^ Spiers, A. J.; Bohannon, J.; Gehrig, S. M.; Rainey, P. B. (2003). "Biofilm formation at the air-liquid interface by the Pseudomonas fluorescens SBW25 wrinkly spreader requires an acetylated form of cellulose". Molecular Microbiology. 50 (1): 15–27. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2958.2003.03670.x. PMID 14507360. S2CID 25931595.
  14. ^ Spiers, A. J.; Kahn, S. G.; Bohannon, J.; Travisano, M.; Rainey, P. B. (2002). "Adaptive divergence in experimental populations of Pseudomonas fluorescens. I. Genetic and phenotypic bases of wrinkly spreader fitness". Genetics. 161 (1): 33–46. doi:10.1093/genetics/161.1.33. PMC 1462107. PMID 12019221.
  15. ^ a b Bohannon, John. "Hello world. I am John Bohannon". John Bohannon. John Bohannon. Archived from the original on 22 April 2018. Retrieved 22 April 2018.
  16. ^ "(untitled)". John Bohannon. John Bohannon. Archived from the original on 3 October 2017. Retrieved 3 October 2017.
  17. ^ Wren, Kathy (10 March 2011). "Science Exclusive: Civilian Casualties Rising in Afghanistan Conflict". AAAS. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Archived from the original on 6 March 2016. Retrieved 6 March 2016.
  18. ^ Marder, Jenny (11 March 2011). "Afghan Civilian Casualties Database Appears in Unexpected Place: Science". PBS Newshour. NewsHour Productions LLC. Archived from the original on 18 July 2017. Retrieved 18 July 2017.
  19. ^ Vergano, Dan (4 October 2013). "Fake Cancer Study Spotlights Bogus Science Journals". National Geographic. National Geographic Society. Archived from the original on 15 June 2018. Retrieved 15 June 2018.
  20. ^ Michael, Eisen (3 October 2013). "I confess, I wrote the Arsenic DNA paper to expose flaws in peer-review at subscription based journals". Michael Eisen. Michael Eisen. Archived from the original on 24 September 2018. Retrieved 24 September 2018.
  21. ^ Eve, Martin (3 October 2013). "Flawed sting operation singles out open access journals". The Conversation. The Conversation US. Archived from the original on 7 October 2018. Retrieved 7 October 2018.
  22. ^ Suber, Peter (3 October 2013). "New "sting" of weak open-access journals". Peter Suber Google+ Posts. Peter Suber. Archived from the original on 6 March 2018. Retrieved 6 March 2018.
  23. ^ Shieber, Stuart (15 October 2013). "Lessons from the faux journal investigation". The Occasional Pamphlet on scholarly communication. Harvard Law School. Archived from the original on 22 March 2017. Retrieved 22 March 2017.
  24. ^ Johannes, Bohannon (2015). "Chocolate with high Cocoa content as a weight-loss accelerator". Scribd. Scribd Inc. Archived from the original on 4 October 2018. Retrieved 4 October 2018.
  25. ^ "International Press Release: Slim by Chocolate". IDH. Institute of Diet and Health (nonexistent institute). 29 March 2015. Archived from the original on 12 December 2015. Retrieved 12 December 2015.
  26. ^ Bohannon, J. (2008). "The Gonzo Scientist. Slaying monsters for science". Science. 320 (5883): 1592. doi:10.1126/science.320.5883.1592c. PMID 18566270. S2CID 481899.
  27. ^ "Stephen's Fancy Feast - The Colbert Report - 2009-11-05 - Video Clip". 11 May 2009. Retrieved 14 March 2012.
  28. ^ "John Bohannon". Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Archived from the original on 23 October 2018. Retrieved 23 October 2018.
  29. ^ "John Bohannon". Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Archived from the original on 23 October 2018. Retrieved 23 October 2018.
  30. ^ "The "Dance Your Ph.D." Contest". Archived from the original on 5 October 2018. Retrieved 5 October 2018.
  31. ^ "John Bohannon: Former BIDS Visiting Scholar". Berkeley Institute for Data Science. University of California Berkeley. Archived from the original on 23 October 2018. Retrieved 23 October 2018.
  32. ^ Black Label Movement
  33. ^ "John Bohannon, TEDxBrussels: Dance vs. powerpoint, a modest proposal". TED: Ideas worth spreading. TED Conferences, LLC. November 2011. Archived from the original on 12 March 2014. Retrieved 12 March 2014.
  34. ^ Lillie, Ben (2 March 2012). "We still aren't quite sure what sex is for: John Bohannon, Black Label Movement and Jelloslave at TED2012". TED Blog. TED Conferences, LLC. Archived from the original on 24 October 2016. Retrieved 24 October 2016.
  35. ^ "TED2012 Full Spectrum: Program". TED2012. TED Conferences, LLC. 2012. Archived from the original on 26 May 2018. Retrieved 26 May 2018.
  36. ^ "Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS)". Lanyrd. Lanyrd. Archived from the original on 12 September 2017. Retrieved 12 September 2017.
  37. ^ Conover, Adam (13 December 2015). "Adam's Sources: Adam Ruins Nutrition". truTV. Turner & truTV. Archived from the original on 16 March 2018. Retrieved 16 March 2018.
  38. ^ a b Anderson, Colin (20 July 2016). "Adam Ruins Everything: Episode 5 Science Journalism with John Bohannon". Maximum Fun. Maximum Fun. Archived from the original on 19 October 2017. Retrieved 19 October 2017.