main article image
(Brian Wansink)

An Influential Celebrity Food Scientist Has Now Had 13 Studies Retracted

PETER DOCKRILL
20 SEP 2018

You might never have heard of Brian Wansink, but there's a decent chance your kitchen or dietary habits have been influenced by his ideas about eating.

The prominent food scientist and marketing researcher – who runs Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab in Ithaca, New York – has made a career out of interesting findings, like how the amount you eat depends on the size of your plate, and how low-fat labels can influence people to consume more calories.

 

But after a series of blundering revelations in the last couple of years, it seems not all of those findings were entirely legit.

This week, the publishers of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and associated journals announced it was retracting six scientific studies that had Wansink listed as an author, in a damning blow to his career and reputation.

What's even more damning is this now brings Wansink's tally of retracted papers to 13 in total, in addition to numerous published corrections.

JAMA indicated back in April that it had "ongoing concerns about the validity" of all of Wansink's published contributions to JAMA journals, and requested Cornell University to conduct an independent evaluation to verify their results.

According to Cornell, confirming the scientific validity of these studies wasn't possible.

"We regret that, because we do not have access to the original data, we cannot assure you that the results of the studies are valid," the university informed JAMA, and without more to go on, the publisher decided to retract all of the research.

 

For a celebrity scientist and author appointed as a USDA consultant and regarded as a "world-renowned eating behaviour expert", it's just the latest in a sensational fall from grace that began after serious doubts were raised over Wansink's data handling.

In an infamous blog post published in 2016, Wansink described how he advised a PhD student to delve into data from a self-funded, failed study and try to find some interesting results, since the original hypothesis wasn't borne out.

"I said: 'This cost us a lot of time and our own money to collect. There's got to be something here we can salvage because it's a cool (rich & unique) data set.' I had three ideas for potential Plan B, C, & D directions (since Plan A had failed)," Wansink wrote.

After the post went live, Wansink was roundly criticised by others in the research community for this loose and questionable approach to using data, sometimes called data dredging or p-hacking.

Wansink refuted the claims, but it wasn't an isolated incident. Scrutiny mounted after the controversy, surfacing other times when he'd advocated the same misleading methods.

 

"Think of all the different ways you can cut the data," Wansink wrote to a student in 2013.

"Work hard, squeeze some blood out of this rock, and we'll see you soon."

For his part, Wansink says Cornell's failure to verify his disputed (and now retracted) JAMA studies amounts to more of a housekeeping failure than anything else.

"All of the reanalyses that were verified by Cornell came out identical or nearly so to what had been reported," he told Retraction Watch.

"The only thing we couldn't find [was] the original survey instruments (some [of] which were over 18 years old). We had the electronic versions of the data, but it doesn't seem reasonable to keep hard copies of surveys years after they are collected."

"[I'm] very proud of all of these papers," he added, "and I'm confident they will be replicated by other groups."

Well, maybe they will be, but maybe they won't. And before any of that happens, there could well be more heat headed Wansink's way.

"Cornell University has conducted a comprehensive review of allegations of academic misconduct raised in relation to the work of Professor Wansink," a Cornell media representative told Retraction Watch.

"We will issue a statement about its outcome on Friday."