Cornell University food researcher and director of the institution’s Food and Brand Lab, Brian Wansink developed a high profile by producing quirky and news-worthy nutrition studies that linked behavioural science with food consumption – often in ways that seemed to make intuitive sense. Examples include a demonstration of “mindless eating” involving 77 students eating chicken wings watching a Superbowl game, the finding that smaller plates aid weight-loss goals, while large fridges encourage eating. A finding that one of the biggest determinants of low BMI in children is sitting at the table with the TV off.
Now Wansink has resigned from his post after an investigation found he committed academic misconduct in his research and scholarship, including misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship. Wansink has been removed from all research and teaching at Cornell, and will retire at the end of the year. So far 13 papers have been retracted and at least 15 corrected. The former professor believes he will be exonerated – that while there were mistakes, there was no fraud, intentional misreporting or plagiarism.
James Heathers, who analysed and uncovered the issues with Wansink’s work is unmoved by his fall from grace – asserting it doesn’t matter if scientific inconsistencies result from mistakes or fraud they add up to untrustworthy publications and conclusions. The very public retraction and resignation are important and tangible outcomes. “The upside, if there is one, is that we can put a single point on the side of a ledger that says ‘scientific accuracy matters’.”
Other commentators are more sanguine and introspective. Wansink’s studies aimed at changing the food environment to help people make more healthful eating decisions according to Dr James Hamblin. The popularity and practicality of his findings resulted in real change – such as food companies implementing smaller packsizes. Hamblin posits that the apparent virtuousness and effectiveness of the work may have been a factor. “The Wansink saga has forced reflection on my own lack of skepticism toward research that confirms what I already believe, in this case that food environments shape our eating behaviours.”
Wansink has described himself as a “pracademic,” an academic aimed at practical problems and workable solutions, and as “a professor whose mission is to help transform people’s lives by finding the small changes that make the big difference.” But he also benefited greatly from attention-grabbing headlines that boosted his profile and no doubt his funding. Being a pracademic does not give anyone a free pass when it comes to scientific rigour – and that is as it should be – but what damage has been done to the already murky world of nutrition science?
Wansink’s research seemed designed for online clicks and marketers – linking relatable behaviour and eating habits. Depending on your perspective his undoing is a sign that the scientific process is robust and will eventually find out those who cut corners, or it’s another reason not to trust science at all.