November 21, 2018
In my family, Thanksgiving this year has turned into a week-long holiday. Not because we’re all so fanatical about celebrating the violent European colonization of North America, but because it will take us that long to figure out what on Earth to put on the table. In a party of 12 we’ve got a duo of vegetarians, one part-time pollotarian, the recently dairy-avoidant and the long-time spice-averse, plus the seasonal carb-watchers and the one insufferable celery-hater. Thanksgiving is where all our food rules crash into each other like proton beams in the bowels of CERN. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some pied piper of edible psychology who could simplify things and lead us all to nutritional nirvana for just one day?
Well, there is… or was. You might not know his name, but for the last two decades, Brian Wansink has been filling your noggin with nuggets of memorable food wisdom. Remember the last time you brought a bowl of chips to the couch instead of the whole bag? Or when you reached for a smaller plate so as not to overeat? Or—as a relative of mine suggested this week—you waited until after lunch to go grocery shopping so your empty tummy didn’t trick you into packing your basket full of excess calories?
Yeah, those are all Wansink-isms. He’s the architect of arguably the most American approach to healthy eating; lose weight without the pain of calorie counting, militant exercise, or special diets. Just hack your surroundings instead. The attractiveness of this idea propelled him to the upper echelons of national nutrition policy, netted him huge federal grants, and led to two best-selling books.
Since 2005, Wansink’s food psychology research unit at Cornell, the Food and Brand Lab, has cranked out hundreds of headline-friendly studies showing the effect our environment has on our eating habits. Change the environment, and you change the habits, the thinking went. His results often had a mythic (and highly meme-able) quality to them. It was as if the data was just telling you something you had always known to be true. And like the hook on a really catchy pop song, the lessons gleaned from that data would burrow deep in your brain and stick.
There’s just one problem: those food truisms might not all be true. We won’t know for sure for a very long time.
In a slowly snowballing scandal that reached the public eye after Buzzfeed’s Stephanie Lee began documenting it last year, Wansink’s prolific body of work, which has been cited more than 27,000 times, has come under intense scientific scrutiny. Tipped off by a blog post that suggested Wansink was encouraging his grad students to engage in a dubious data manipulation technique known as p-hacking, a team of independent researchers and statisticians began combing through his old studies. They eventually compiled a long list of alleged errors, inconsistencies, and self-plagiarisms now known as “the Wansink Dossier.”
After initially clearing him of misconduct, Cornell began its own investigation last November. In September of this year, the journal network JAMA retracted six of Wansink’s papers—including the hungry-shoppers-buy-more-calories and big-bowls-make-people-eat-more studies—after Cornell investigators failed to turn up the original paper survey data. The next day, Cornell concluded that Wansink had “committed academic misconduct” and announced he would be retiring from the university at the end of the school year. With him, it appears the Food and Brand Lab may also disappear; its website went dark toward the end of October. To date, Wansink has had 15 papers retracted for error-laden data, sketchy statistics, and faulty conclusions, according to the Retraction Watch database. Corrections have been issued on 15 more.
Cornell is currently undergoing a second phase of its investigation, to determine whether its fallen social science star’s misconduct may have affected federally funded research projects. From 2007 to 2009, Wansink served as executive director of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, where he led the revision of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for America. The Smarter Lunchrooms strategies he designed are currently being used in over 29,000 schools.
Despite all this, Wansink stands proudly by his work. He has claimed in public statements that there is “no fraud, no intentional misreporting, no plagiarism, or no misappropriation.” In an email he sent to colleagues ahead of his retirement notice, which Wansink shared with WIRED, he also voiced pride in the research they undertook together and the marks it made on the real world. “We may believe that our papers have been unfairly retracted,” he wrote. “But what they can’t retract is the impact these have had on people’s lives and the impact they will continue to have.”
And that’s the thing about research like Wansink’s, which he says was designed to be accessible to average people, to answer their “everyday” questions. If they turn out to be bogus, there’s no practical way to claw back those catchy results from the public consciousness. “Once an idea is embedded in the culture, once people have gravitated toward a particular finding, it really takes on a life of its own,” says Brian Nosek, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and head of the Center for Open Science, an initiative that is trying to address reproducibility crises in the social science and medical canons.
I asked Nosek if he would consider taking on a replication project of the Food and Brand Lab’s work. No, he says, probably not. “The discrediting of it has already occurred,” he said. “What information would we gain from trying to replicate research that everyone agrees comes from very bad scientific practices?”
This, of course, is a liberal definition of the word “everyone.” What Nosek really means is everyone in the behavioral psych research community. Social scientists who’ve been trained to evaluate methodology and statistical frameworks, and who understand the difference between a study failing to replicate (which happens often in science) and a study being retracted (which doesn’t).
But the nuances of hypothesis testing, of scientific publication and retraction, don’t package up nicely into a meme-like rule to live by. I asked Wansink over email if he ever wonders that he may have led the American public astray. “Never, not even for a nano-second,” he responded. He believes in everything he’s published, and is confident his work will be replicated widely.
Like the rest of the slow-moving, self-correcting, scientific enterprise, a full accounting of Wansink’s work will take a torturously long time. We may not get any clean answers as to what’s real and what isn’t in Wansink World for many Thanksgivings to come. Evidence that holds up will stay in the scientific canon, where it can continue to inform public policy. Results that don’t will be removed from reviews and cast aside. In the public imagination, any claims that turn out to be wrong will persist, but with an ever more tenuous connection to science. They’ll retreat year over year into the cultural folklore, untethered from p-values and citation scores. It probably won’t make eating with your family over the holidays any easier, but at least you can fret a little bit less about the size of your snack bowls.
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