Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Meet The King of Junk Food Science

Ever get overwhelmed by the "he-who" studies about food that make the news all the time?  People who eat red meat X times a week are more likely to get Y; that sort of thing?  Meet the reigning king of junk science: Buzz Feed presents the story of Brian Wansink, the head of Cornell’s prestigious food psychology research unit, the Food and Brand Lab. If any one person could be responsible for so many of us saying, "Wait!... Didn't they say that was good (or bad) for us last week?", it's Brian Wansink.
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.

“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.
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.  

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...”

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...”
Eventually, four papers were published about the pizza study.  All four have been corrected or retracted.  It might be catching up with him.
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.

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.”
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:
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


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  2. "Science" has had replication problem for some time. Einstein, We Have a Problem.

    I put science in quotes, because it isn't really science. A lot of it is politics. Some of it is "Publish anything, because publishing is required to get a degree or keep a job."

  3. Sorry greybeard, this is completely off topic, but thought you might have some technical insights...

    Ok this is creepy:


    It uses passive millimeter wave radiation, basically a type of IR light you give off to see thru your clothes.

    There is a pdf with the tech



    added- this is likely to be what the vegas hotel/casino said they would install to passively scan guests without their knowledge.

    How does this work legally? What about the 4th amendment? you waive it at an airport but just traveling thru a train station, or eating lunch there, shouldn’t provide consent to be searched visually to discover what you have under your clothes.

    1. I'm afraid I don't understand what you're asking. I understand the system; they call it "passive millimeter wave radiation", I've always seen it called "far infrared". W band is a good band for trying this, and I know it has been talked about (at least) for things like finding stealth targets in a battle.

      I have no idea about legalities and all. Seems to me like anything that senses you can be construed as a violation of the 4th, but surveillance cameras are everywhere. This is another camera, tuned to a different spectrum - different "color" of light. I don't see much of a chance of saying you're entitled to privacy of your heat emissions in public, but your visible light image is usable.

    2. Just thought it was pretty near radio, and used (to me)exotic wave guides, and I'm sure it's cooled for noise reduction, uses some esoteric amps, so for some reason I remembered that as one of your areas of specialization....

      But I read a bunch of radio guys, and defense contractors, so sorry if I got that confused.

      It seems like magic xray glasses to me.


    3. You're absolutely right. It's just like radio. Actually, it is radio, but where you draw the line between radio and infrared isn't a rock-solid wall. There's a WiFi band at 60 GHz, called WiGig, and they sometimes use optical techniques there. These sensors are close to that: they said 80-100 GHz.

      If you look up "black body radiation" (try Wiki for starters, you'll find all bodies radiate the same basic curve of intensity vs. wavelength (frequency) depending on temperature. The hotter they are, the higher in frequency the curve goes. If it's close to room or body temp, the curve is in the millimeter wave range. As they get hotter, the curve slides "right" up into the infrared. If you're heating some metal, the curve slides farther right and it glows visibly.

      Light, heat, and radio waves are all the same thing; electromagnetic waves. They're just different frequencies.

    4. You're right. It is radio. I tried it and this is what I heard.

    5. The forth amendment is basically dead.

      They can track your car using license plate readers, traffic and other cameras (You're in public, you have no expectation of privacy)

      They can track you using facial recognition if you aren't in your car. (Again, you're in public.)

      Anything you store electronically with a 3rd party (email, cloud storage, system backups) you have no claim to privacy. You want it to be private, you need to encrypt it before it gets uploaded or emailed.

      All of that is before they need to get a warrant.

      Unless it produces a detailed image, the courts will probably hold there is no violation of your privacy.

      IF your car has tire-pressure sensors and alarms, your car is radiating 4 wireless signals. I can't remember the band, but you can buy equipment to monitor it. It isn't hard to determine which signals are for which vehicles.

      Your phone if you have WiFi turned on, is constantly looking for networks. (This is the basis of the Man-in-the-Middle attacks.) It is asking "Is my home-network available? Is my work-network available?" Even if a bad actor doesn't answer "Yes" and hijack your WiFi, it can be used to track you.

      If you have location services turned on, and are using any of the Google apps that use it, Google can give a you detailed map (by minute) of everywhere you have been in the past 2 weeks.

      If they can get malware on your phone, they can do more.

      It is why the governments around the world (including ours) are going crazy of the protocols developed by Moxie Marlinspike and employed in Signal, WhatsApp, and iMessage. Makes encrypted communications easy. Though people still don't use it or follow the rules to ensure strict confidentiality.
      The list goes on...

  4. This is why the CDC is prohibited from doing "gun violence" studies. Think of the "science" that would come of it and the liberal solutions that would be based on BS. The thought is chilling to say the least. When you read about the "P Hacking" and all the problems with statistical significance, etc. It is amazing how many things are accepted that are not actually true, or at least haven't been proven to be true.

    1. Absolutely.

      One of the most cited scientific papers in history is John Ioannidis' 2005 paper "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False". It explores the subject in depth and lists a lot of characteristics - one conclusion says "The hotter a scientific field (with more scientific teams involved), the less likely the research findings are to be true." Think climate change.

      It's said that as much as 3/4 of the hard science papers published are wrong. From all fields from social science to particle physics.

  5. https://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php/882:_Significant

  6. I discovered this a L O N G time ago. When microwave ovens first came out there was a widely published study which said "ZOMG!!!! NEVER warm your baby formula in a microwave because it produces toxins and will kill your baby/turn your baby into a mutant/cause mental retardation/the sun to rise in the west" and other such horrors.

    When I looked up the "research" I found that they had put the milk into a sealed container and blasted it for between 45 minutes and 1 1/2 hours.

    Now, correct me if I am wrong, but cooking complex molecules under high pressure (about 1 1/2 atmospheres or higher) under about 160 degree C temperatures will result in polymerisation of the molecules and organic compounds (similar to Casein glue) will form which, taken in vast quantities, are harmful.

    Another one I read stated that there is enough tannin in 10 Imperial Gallons (12.5 US Gallons) of tea to kill a house fly. ZOMG!!!! Tea is pure poison and you should not drink tea.

    Now Californication is trying to put warnings on coffee as minute traces of compounds which are harmful in much larger quantities are present ...

    Please, leave me alone to kill myself with nice, juicy underdone steaks, alcohol (is red wine a danger or beneficial this week? I can't remember) and full fat milk and butter.

    Phil B

    1. Ever notice that everything causes cancer in California, according to those labels on everything?

      Must be a terrible place to live with all those carcinogens everywhere.

    2. One of the reasons we left the state......:-)

  7. Funny name for a person publishing nonsense "Wansink". One letter away from the German word for nonsense, Wansinn.