The Wansink Dossier: An Overview

Brian Wansink is professor at Cornell University and is a high-profile researcher with an impressive track record. He is a ‘world-renowned eating behavior expert‘, White House appointed to lead the USDA committee on Dietary Guidelines (2007-2009), keynote speaker at conventions around the world, author of the bestselling books Mindless Eating and Slim by Design. As an academic he has published hundreds of papers, which have been cited over 20.000 times, and he has a very impressive h-index of 72.

Brian Wansink engages in research practices that are highly questionable and are widely criticized. He has admitted to these practices himself (sources below), and an increasing number of his papers are being retracted or corrected. Despite all this, he is still a professor at Cornell University and director of the Food and Brand Lab.

The majority of his work that has been scrutinized has been done so by Nick Brown, Jordan Anaya, James Heathers, and me. We are all early career researchers who care greatly for the veracity of the scientific literature; none of us are being paid for this investigate work that we do on our own time. Criticisms of Wansink’s work have been featured in a wide variety of news outlets (see section 5 below). In particular, Stephanie Lee, senior technology reporter at BuzzFeed, has done some amazing investigate journalism.

In this blogpost I strive to give a comprehensive overview of the ‘Wansink Dossier’. Due to the massive scope and the ongoing nature of this investigation, I have split it up into several chapters (click on the headers to show/hide the underlying text).

Index:

23 thoughts on “The Wansink Dossier: An Overview

  1. Consider sending your report to the integrity officer of the university of Wansink, if you not already did so.

  2. This is extensive work. This must have taken you a very long time. It is indeed a pretty damning report. Academic malpractice needs to be detected so your readers are thankful for your post.

    Can I ask you for your motivations to publish this detailed, targeted analysis here? Is this part of your research (i.e. are you funded to do this kind of research, which would explain in part the generous amount of time and focus allocated to it?) One suspects the problem is both systemic and endemic and not unique to a particular individual. Apart from those briefly stated, what was the selection criteria that led you to dig deeply into Wansink’s publications? Was Wansink and his co-authors contacted about this study for comment? Were Wansink et al’s editors contacted? COPE?

    One cannot help wondering what would be the most ethical, collegial way to denounce academic malpractice post hoc over time.

    • It has indeed taken quite some time and effort, although this blog post is just a compilation of already existing research. I am not paid or rewarded in any way for these efforts, nor are any of the other persons who are actively investigating Wansink. So why do we do it? Personally, because I think it is important that the scientific literature is accurate. It is often said that science is self-correcting; but this is only true because scientists put in effort to accomplish this. This is my why of contributing, in addition to my regular research.

      Wansink got our attention because he more or less self admitted to using a wide range of questionable research practices on his own blog, found here. After inspecting some of the papers he himself describes there, I spotted a range of irregularities. On Twitter I found out about others who were doing the same thing, so we joined forces and wrote a pre-print describing 150 errors in just 4 papers. I do not particularly care about Wansink’s research, but insofar as my aim is to help making science more accurate his work is merely ‘low hanging fruit’.

      Long before we started public communications we attempted to communicate in private with Wansink. We asked him to share his data (which is was supposed to do given the publication guidelines) but he refused to. He did offer me to become co-author on a paper with him (whether that was genuine or some kind of bribe I do not know). After he stopped responding we contacted Cornell Universities’s Office of Research Integrity and Assurance (ORIA) and the Institutional Research Board (IRB). They replied only very briefly, stating that they supported “open inquiry and vigorous scientific debate” but that everything was up to the researchers to decide whether they want to share data or not. They never commented on the massive amounts of errors we found in just 4 papers. You can read more about that in one of my earlier posts here.

      Communications with journal editors seems to have become much more fruitful as of late, with many of them responding that they will further investigate the papers.

      Like you, I also wonder what the most ethical way is to denounce academic malpractice. I hope that my efforts are considered to be a good way to do so. If not, please do provide feedback on how I can do it in a better way.

    • Thanks Lielais. They indeed replied to the issues raised in the 4 pizza papers. Like you said, they have not responded to still increasing list of papers which contain similar and other kind of issues. To be honest I am somewhat baffled by their response; while it does make sense from a PR perspective they do not seem to take this all very seriously yet, as they downplay the critiques by referring to them as “raised questions” or focus only on self-plagiarism (which often is considered to be less severe than statistical errors and, say, impossible data/claims).

  3. Whomever has been funding his work should take notice of these findings. It is my understanding he received a large non-competitive award from USDA — I think it was over $5 million. I also fault academia in general for pressuring faculty to publish, publish, publish. I believe is was plausible explanation for why he did this. Quantity matters more than quality.

  4. De volkskrant heeft het over Diederik Stapel Daar heeft men niets van geleerd, ook niet in Nederland.
    Want Als je klachten hebt over een onderzoek moet je nog steeds bij de onderzoekende universiteit of instituut zijn.
    Het onderzoek naar zindelijkheid is jammer genoeg van het internet verdwenen. Maar was zo slecht dat het tegenwoordig heel normaal is dat kinderen pas met 4 jaar zindelijk zijn. Terwijl kinderen vroeger met 1,5 jaar zindelijk waren. En men in Belgie hele andere resultaten heeft.
    Maar TNO stuurt het gewoon alleen door naar de falende wetenschappers.

  5. I may have been one of the first to challenge a paper by Dr. Wansink, in my web document Debunking a Shoddy “Research” Study. (9.67 Degrees Of Deception.), April 2014. https://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/pseudo/cartoon_eyes.htm. Wansink’s paper, “Eyes in the Aisles” was then widely reported (favorably) in the media, without critical scrutiny. Yet Wansink’s paper was flawed in so many ways that an undergraduate science student could have exposed it as a case of careless research methodology and misleading analysis. I was aware then of the flaws in the data analysis, but considered them minor compared to the paper’s other more serious flaws. One of the most serious errors was a factor of 2 error in a bogus calculation of the elevation angle of the eyes of cartoon characters. When I first read Wansink’s paper I thought it was a deliberate joke, spoof or parody of “scientific studies”. I still wonder why it has taken so long to “blow the whistle” on this so-called research, which gives science a bad image. I politely requested the raw data from Wansink. He refused, saying that the data was still being analyzed for future publications. Subsequent inquires to Wansink went unanswered.

    • This sounds exactly like our experience. In many cases I suspect that data exists somewhere, but it bears very little relation to the published article. It’s as if Wansink conducts a study, then uses it as the basis to write a novel that loosely follows the same narrative, without being too concerned about what actually happened.

      In this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8u6xdGCIq6o Wansink says that the eyes are looking down at 4 degrees, not the 9.67 degrees mentioned in the article. This kind of error makes very little sense to me unless the actual research is supremely unimportant to him. Compare the JAMA Pediatrics article (now retracted) in which, in the initial version, the conclusion was that a study conducted with 8-11 year olds (or, as Wansink now claims, he *believed* was conducted with 8-11 year olds) showed that the effect had been demonstrated in “preliterate” children. It is very tempting to believe that almost nothing is backed up by facts, and the key aim is to tell a good story each time.

    • It’s not clear that Benford’s Law is always appropriate for the kinds of data here. However, in a couple of cases we have found some troubling patterns in the *final* digits of some variables, when these ought to be random. For example, if you measure something like reaction times in the 30-50 second range to two decimal places, the digits for the final decimal place ought to be uniformly distributed, or perhaps there might be a tiny “Benford-like” effect giving you slightly more 0s and 1s. But if you find a lot of 5s and 6s, and a lot fewer 0s than expected, it could be that the numbers have been made up by a human, because people are not good at making up numbers that look random (zeroes are “too round”). In one case (currently with the journal editor) the distribution of the trailing digits gives a p value of .00002.

  6. Yawn. Other than the blood out of the rock quote there’s nothing really alarming here. I bet other scientists have the same problems. And why is “self-plagiarism” bad? It’s well known that scientists routinely rehash the same paper / same data, N different ways.

    I think the seriousness of p-hacking is related to the seriousness of the topic. Here, it’s not serious since the topic is “eating behavior” which in my mind is only a few steps removed from “sex therapist”, i.e., it’s pure entertainment. We’re not talking about a serious topic.

    • Yes, other scientists sadly also engage in similar practice, but that does not make it less alarming. Did you read the extent and variety of the errors? Would you really argue that these are not alarming?

      The self-plagiarism definitely isn’t the worst part, although it is copyright infringement. Personally I don’t care much about self-plagiarism, but the other kind of mistakes are very serious indeed. Wansink has received millions in research funding, and his research has had a massive effect on policy at a national level. Social science like this affects millions of people, so it is indeed a serious topic, despite your remarks.

      • Policy + Demographics = The future. Important indeed.

        Ps. Love your tagline “I am wrong most of the time.” I try to keep that in mind myself.

  7. Comment pertain to your analysis of the paper “Wansink, B. (2003). Profiling nutritional gatekeepers: Three methods for differentiating influential cooks. Food Quality and Preference, 14, 289–297”

    You say that “a total of 415 numbers were reported to two decimal places, which have the following distribution of last digits: This is highly unlikely (and statistically significant) given the assuming that all digits are the result of a random process. This probably is about 0.0065.”

    You should also look into the distribution of “first digits” and compare it to the so-called “Benford’s Law” (check wikipedia) which can be used to detect statistical fraud.

  8. Briefly . . . I just discovered all the Wansink material yesterday. I read through it with total fascination, as I have been waging a nearly four-year battle in my own field on almost exactly the same issues (admittedly, birdsong may not be as important as the food issues, but the principles of science are the same). Early on, one of the “target authors” actually used the University Police to threaten me with criminal harassment charges if I asked him questions about his research (and I am emeritus in the same university Biology Department he is!).
    As Tim van der Zee said to BuzzFeed: “One of the fundamental principles of the scientific method is transparency — to conduct research in a way that can be assessed, verified, and reproduced . . . This is not optional — it is imperative.” Another quote from Buzzfeed that summarized everything I am dealing with: “this is not science, it is storytelling.”
    Threatened as a criminal for being a scientist, I began documenting of all my attempts along the way to address what I saw as egregious examples of scientific and ethical misconduct. So far, what has astounded me even more than what gets published as science is the seeming indifference to it all by university watchdogs (from departmental chairs all the way up to the provost), journal editors, officers of the (scientific) Society in which the primary target author has risen to the office of President, and more.
    My efforts continue (see http://donaldkroodsma.com/performance), as the only way non-science like this can be stopped is if the costs of producing it exceed the benefits. So far, the costs in my field seem to have been minimal, and the benefits considerable. I find that disheartening.

    A huge thank you to Tim, Nick, and others working on these issues. The stakes are huge, for Science in general.

  9. Hi Tim,

    You wrote (above): “Like you, I also wonder what the most ethical way is to denounce academic malpractice. I hope that my efforts are considered to be a good way to do so. If not, please do provide feedback on how I can do it in a better way”.

    In Australia, after no proper response from the high-profile University of Sydney co-authors of the extraordinarily faulty Australian Paradox paper, I contacted the media.

    Since then, there have been detailed reports on the infamous paper in newspapers and on TV and radio. For example:

    1. http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/health-experts-continue-to-dispute-sydney-uni/7324520

    2. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/2014-02-09/5239418

    3. https://www.smh.com.au/healthcare/research-causes-stir-over-sugars-role-in-obesity-20120330-1w3e5.html

    4. https://www.smh.com.au/business/pesky-economist-wont-let-big-sugar-lie-20120725-22pru.html

    Regardless, for six years, nothing much has changed. The University of Sydney has continued to pretend there is no problem. Most recently, one or both of the Charles Perkins Centre (https://sydney.edu.au/charles-perkins-centre/ ) co-authors have:

    1. Accused me of bribing the Vice-Chancellor (CEO) of the University of Sydney with a $10,000 gift, in an attempt to prompt the formal research-integrity Inquiry into their work: p. 1 http://www.australianparadox.com/pdf/USyd-Misconduct-in-ANU-PhD.pdf ;

    2. Told a recklessly misleading sob-story to an Australian National University PhD candidate, who subsequently misrepresented their use of fake data and highly flawed analysis, in her own PhD thesis on “research silencing” (p. 11);

    3. Placed fake data in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN), in the process of avoiding research-integrity Investigator Professor Robert Clark AO’s main recommendation, to “specifically address” and “clarify” the key “factual issues” in their original paper (p. 6);

    4. Attempted to have me banned from the University of Sydney campus: p. 64 http://www.australianparadox.com/pdf/Big-5-year-update-Feb-2017.pdf ;

    5. Used a Sunday newspaper to promote their invalid Australian Paradox and AJCN “findings” – as well as other demonstrably false claims – in our national debate on whether or not there should be a “sugar tax” to reduce obesity, type 2 diabetes and early death: p. 6 http://www.australianparadox.com/pdf/australian-sugar-tax-debate.pdf

    6. Continued to sell millions of pop-sci “Low GI” diet books that make the ridiculous false claim that “There is absolute consensus that sugar in food does not cause [type 2] diabetes”: p. 6 http://www.australianparadox.com/pdf/Expanded-Letter-HealthDept-type2diabetes.pdf

    Readers, please be highly critical of me here and elsewhere if you think I am doing “the wrong thing” in campaigning for the formal retraction of the infamous Australian Paradox paper.

    Best wishes,
    Rory

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