Behaviorist Brian Wansink whose “bottomless bowl” theory of why people eat too much – and other creative but problematic ideas hatched at Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab has fallen from grace:
His lab informed food companies implementing the 100-calorie snack packs you see in stores, for example, under the idea that these smaller portions would get people to eat less. He led the national committee on dietary guidelines and worked to improve the food ecosystems in public schools, the U.S. Army, and Google, among others.
On Thursday, Cornell’s provost, Michael Kotlikoff, issued a statement (touted by a university press release) that said a faculty committee had investigated Wansink and found that he had “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.”James Hamblin, “A Credibility Crisis in Food Science” at The Atlantic
Apparently, Wansink attracted attention for what appeared to be an encouragement to his grad students to engage in “p-hacking.” Hamblin offers more detail in his article but p-hacking “occurs when researchers collect or select data or statistical analyses until nonsignificant results become significant” (PLOS).
Hamblin adds that “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 behaviors. For example, among his other retracted studies are those finding that we buy more groceries when we shop hungry and order healthier food when we preorder lunch. All of this seems intuitive. I have used the phrase health halo in my own writing, and am still inclined to think it’s a valid idea.”
Sure. Lots of valid ideas are hard to test. It is apparently true, for example, that religious people live longer, but when researchers try to study the reasons, they could find themselves in an opaque welter of details, many of which could be individually refuted. And yet the pattern could remain the same.
That said, food science overall is in way big trouble.
See also: Another well-earned jab at “nutrition science”
Censored researchers: Nutrition is a “degenerating” research paradigm