Cornell Food and Brand Lab: an Update

After mentioning the embattled Brian Wansink and the Cornell Food and Brand Lab in my post last week, a friend passed along the most recent update on this story. Interestingly it appears Buzzfeed is the news outlet doing the most reporting on this story as it continues to develop.

A quick review:
Brian Wansink is the head of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, which publishes all sorts of interesting research about the psychology behind eating and how we process information on health. Even if you’ve never heard his name, you may have heard about his work….studies like “people eat more soup if their bowl refills so they don’t know how much they’ve eaten”  or “kids eat more vegetables when they have fun names” tend to be from his lab.

About a year ago, he published a blog post where he praised one of his grad students for taking a data set that didn’t really show much and turning it in to 5 publishable papers.  This turned in to an enormous scandal as many people quickly pointed out that a feat like that almost certainly involved lots of data tricks that would make the papers results very likely to be false.  As the scrutiny went up, things got worse as now people were pouring over his previous work.

Not only did this throw Wansink’s work in to question, but a lot of people (myself included) who had used his work in their work now had to figure out whether or not to retract or update what they had written. Ugh.

So where are we now?
Well as I mentioned, Buzzfeed has been making sure this doesn’t drop. In September, they reported that the aforementioned “veggie with fun names” study had a lot of problems. Worse yet, Wansink couldn’t produce the data when asked.   What was incredibly concerning is that this particular paper is part of a program Wansink was piloting for school lunches. With his work under scrutiny, over $20 million in research and training grants may have gone towards strategies that may not actually be effective. To be clear, the “fun veggie name study” wasn’t the only part of this program, but it’s definitely not encouraging to find out that parts of it are so shaky.

To make things even worse, they are now reporting that several of his papers that allegedly were done on three different topics in three different years sent to three different sample populations show the exact same number of survey respondents: 770. Those papers are being reviewed.

Finally, the report he has a 4th paper being retracted, this one on WWII veterans and cooking habits. An interview with the researcher who helped highlight the issues with the paper is up here at Retraction Watch, and some of the problems with the paper are pretty amazing. When asked where he first noted problems, he said: “First there is the claim that only 80% of people who saw heavy, repeated combat during WW2 were male.”  Yeah, that seems a little off. Wansink has responded to the Buzzfeed report to say that this was due to a spreadsheet error.

Overall, the implications of this are going to be felt for a while. While only 4 papers have been retracted so far, Buzzfeed reports that 8 more have planned corrections, and over 50 are being looked at. With such a prolific lab and results that are used in so many places, this story could go on for years. I appreciate the journalists keeping up on this story as it’s an incredibly important cautionary tale for members of the scientific community and the public alike.

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