As the head of Cornell’s prestigious food psychology research unit, the Food and Brand Lab, Wansink was a social science star. His dozens of studies about why and how we eat received mainstream attention everywhere from O, the Oprah Magazine to the Today show to the New York Times. At the heart of his work was an accessible, inspiring message: Weight loss is possible for anyone willing to make a few small changes to their environment, without need for strict diets or intense exercise.To show an example, Buzz Feed leads with a story about a young scientist from Turkey, Özge Siğirci, and the task Wansink gave her. Earlier, Wansink's lab had performed an experiment at an all-you-can-eat buffet in an Italian restaurant. Some customers paid $8 for the buffet, others paid half price. After their meal, they all filled out a questionnaire about who they were and how they felt about what they’d eaten.
Somewhere in those survey results, the professor was convinced, there had to be a meaningful relationship between the discount and the diners. But he wasn’t satisfied by Siğirci’s initial review of the data.The problem is, that's not how the statistical techniques of science work. You don't sift through tons of data trying to find a hypothesis to publish, you have a hypothesis and then set up an experiment to try to prove or disprove it. More specifically, you try to disprove the Null Hypothesis; which says that your experiment made no difference and any differences you found are a random event. Disproving the null hypothesis means your experiment worked. Wansink is going about things completely backwards: he's looking at results and trying to generate a hypothesis that matches them.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done an interesting study where the data ‘came out’ the first time I looked at it,” he told her over email.
For example, he gave Siğirci suggestions for how to massage the data, and would later publicly praise her on his blog for being “the grad student who never said ‘no.’”
First, he wrote, she should break up the diners into all kinds of groups: “males, females, lunch goers, dinner goers, people sitting alone, people eating with groups of 2, people eating in groups of 2+, people who order alcohol, people who order soft drinks, people who sit close to buffet, people who sit far away, and so on...”Eventually, four papers were published about the pizza study. All four have been corrected or retracted. It might be catching up with him.
Then she should dig for statistical relationships between those groups and the rest of the data: “# pieces of pizza, # trips, fill level of plate, did they get dessert, did they order a drink, and so on...”
Wansink couldn’t have known that his blog post would ignite a firestorm of criticism that now threatens the future of his three-decade career. Over the last 14 months, critics the world over have pored through more than 50 of his old studies and compiled “the Wansink Dossier,” a list of errors and inconsistencies that suggests he aggressively manipulated data. Cornell, after initially clearing him of misconduct, has opened an investigation. And he’s had five papers retracted and 14 corrected, the latest just this month.As Susan Wei, an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Minnesota interviewed for the article says, it's hard to tell if Wansink is stupid or corrupt. Well, she was more polite than I am and didn't put it exactly that way:
Now, interviews with a former lab member and a trove of previously undisclosed emails show that, year after year, Wansink and his collaborators at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab have turned shoddy data into headline-friendly eating lessons that they could feed to the masses.
In correspondence between 2008 and 2016, the renowned Cornell scientist and his team discussed and even joked about exhaustively mining datasets for impressive-looking results. They strategized how to publish subpar studies, sometimes targeting journals with low standards. And they often framed their findings in the hopes of stirring up media coverage to, as Wansink once put it, “go virally big time.”
Wei added. “He’s so brazen about it, I can’t tell if he’s just bad at statistical thinking, or he knows that what he’s doing is scientifically unsound but he goes ahead anyway.”Longtime readers know that junk science is one of those things that really gets me mad; it's also something I've written about several times (example). In a way, Wansink is just another example of the replication crisis hitting science, mentioned in that link.
A lot of people in the country really pay attention to these junk studies and try to adjust their life to improve their health and their family's. There appears to be no attention in Wansink's lab to how good the science is, just that it gets lots of publicity and goes viral.
It's a long article, but quite an interesting read if you're interested in the "replication crisis" in science, and some of the problems. It looks closely at some studies Wansink's group is famous for and their problems, and it has interviews with some former students.
Brian Wansink - AP Photo by Mike Groll - from Buzz Feed