Cornell’s Brian Wansink: A Crisis in Food Science

Similarly he reported that enormous buckets of popcorn at movie theaters can make us eat more, even when the popcorn is “not palatable.” He also popularized the concept of “health halos” that certain foods carry to make them seem healthy even when they aren’t—because, for example, they are marketed as “gluten-free” even when they are simply brownies.

The popularity and apparent practicality of his work translated into implementation: His lab informed food companies implementing the 100-calorie snack packs you see in stores, for example, under the idea that these smaller portions would get people to eat less. He led the national committee on dietary guidelines and worked to improve the food ecosystems in public schools, the U.S. Army, and Google, among others.

On Thursday, Cornell University’s provost, Michael Kotlikoff, issued a statement (touted by a university press release) that said a faculty committee had investigated Wansink and found that he had “committed academic misconduct in his research and scholarship, including misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship.”

The investigation is the culmination of a wide-ranging inquisition into Wansink by journalists and academics that appears to date back to a post on his blog two years ago that many readers took as encouraging his graduate students to engage in a pervasive and dishonest practice of “p-hacking” (manipulating data to find positive results that will be more interesting and amenable to publication than the results that came of the hypothesis the experiment actually set out to test).

This led other researchers to ask Wansink for his data, and that led to apologies and promises to redo his statistical analyses. Eventually his articles started getting retracted. In February of this year, the BuzzFeed news reporter Stephanie Lee published a story titled “Here’s How Cornell Scientist Brian Wansink Turned Shoddy Data Into Viral Studies About How We Eat” that included emails in which Wansink encouraged the same sort of data manipulation. The emails were taken as a sort of smoking gun in an already suspicious situation.

Then last week it all came crashing down, with the prestigious journal network JAMA retracting six Wansink studies—bringing his retraction total to 13. What’s more, JAMA did this because it said it could not “provide assurances regarding the scientific validity” of the studies, not necessarily that they were flawed.

Wansink sent me a rebuttal by email to each of Kotlikoff’s charges that included admitting to “mistakenly reporting the wrong ages for preschool children” and “some typos, transposition errors, and some statistical mistakes.” He also admitted, “We could have done a better job documenting and saving research results, and we came up with new standard operating procedures to correct this.” He concluded:

The interpretation of these four acts of misconduct can be debated, and I did so for a year without the success I expected. There was no fraud, no intentional misreporting, no plagiarism, or no misappropriation. I believe all of my findings will be either supported, extended, or modified by other research groups. I am proud of my research, the impact it has had on the health of many millions of people, and I am proud of my coauthors across the world.

I am not here to adjudicate these cases, or any of the other retractions and corrections, which you can read about at length in the work of many journalists and academics who are more skilled in the forensics of statistical analysis than I, and who can take you as far into the details as you’d like. The job of science journalism is to hold accountable the people who receive the public’s trust and funding, and that work has apparently been done here.

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