Emails Show How An Ivy League Prof Tried To Do Damage Control For His Bogus Food Science


Brian Wansink of Cornell University publishes
headline-friendly studies about food psychology and oversees
a $22 million federally funded program that uses his research
to promote “smarter lunchrooms” in nearly 30,000 schools.
Emails obtained by BuzzFeed News show how he scrambled to
spin allegations that dozens of his studies are all just
bologna.

Posted on September 27, 2017, 18:28 GMT

Small Stuff for BuzzFeed News; Getty Images (4); Alamy
(2)

The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, a $22 million
federally funded program that pushes healthy-eating
strategies in almost 30,000 schools, is partly based on
studies that contained flawed — or even missing — data.

The main scientist behind the work, Cornell University
professor Brian Wansink, has made headlines for his research
into the psychology of eating. His experiments have found,
for example, that women who put cereal on their kitchen
counters
weigh more than those who don’t, and that people will
pour more wine if they’re
holding the glass than if it’s sitting on a table. Over
the past two decades he’s written two popular books and more
than 100 research papers, and enjoyed
widespread
media
coverage (including on

BuzzFeed).

Yet over the past year, Wansink and his “Food and Brand Lab”
have come under fire from scientists and statisticians who’ve

spotted all sorts of red
flags — including data inconsistencies, mathematical
impossibilities, errors, duplications, exaggerations,
eyebrow-raising interpretations, and instances of
self-plagiarism — in 50 of his studies.

Journals have so far retracted three of these papers and
corrected at least seven. Now, emails obtained by BuzzFeed
News through public information requests reveal for the first
time that Wansink and his Cornell colleague David Just are
also in the process of correcting yet another
study, “Attractive names sustain increased vegetable
intake in schools,” published in Preventive Medicine in 2012.

The most recent retraction — a rare move typically seen as a
black mark on a scientist’s reputation — happened last
Thursday, when JAMA Pediatrics
pulled a similar study, also from 2012, titled “Can
branding improve school lunches?”

Stan Honda / AFP / Getty Images

Both studies claimed that children are more likely to choose
fruits and vegetables when they’re jazzed up, such as when
carrots are called “X-Ray Vision Carrots” and when apples
have Sesame Street stickers. The underlying theory is that
fun, descriptive branding will not only make an eater more
aware of the food, but will “also raise one’s taste
expectations,” as the scientists explained in one of the
papers.

The studies have been cited more than 75 times by others,
according to Web of Science, and were funded by a grant of
nearly $99,000 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s
Healthy Eating Research program. The foundation told BuzzFeed
News it hasn’t awarded him any grants since then.

The two studies have also been touted as evidence for the
Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, cofounded by Wansink and Just in
2010. It promotes “simple
evidence-based strategies” to encourage students to make
healthy choices, participate in federally subsidized lunch
programs, and waste less food. The USDA has funded $8.4
million in research grants related to the program to date,
according to an agency spokesperson. Since 2014, it’s also
awarded nearly $14 million in training grants.
Almost 30,000 schools have adopted those techniques, and
the government pays each one
up to $2,000 for doing so. (The program says it’s also
funded
by Target and Wansink’s Cornell lab.)

One of the program’s
recommendations is that school cafeterias feature a fruit
or vegetable of the day and label it with “a creative,
descriptive name.” Suggestions include “orange squeezers,”
“monkey phones (bananas),” “snappy apples,”
“cool-as-a-cucumber slices,” and “sweetie pie sweet
potatoes.” Branding food in this way “can increase
consumption by over 30%,” according to the program’s
website. As proof, the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement

cites the JAMA Pediatrics and Preventive Medicine
studies, among others.

The USDA told BuzzFeed News that it has been talking to
Cornell’s Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition
Programs (the BEN Center), which administers the Smarter
Lunchrooms Movement, about some of the allegedly flawed
research. The agency “believes that scientific integrity is
important, and that program and policy decisions should be
based on strong evidence,” wrote USDA spokesperson Amanda
Heitkamp.

“We have discussed these concerns with the BEN Center, and
they have plans to address them in consultation with the
Cornell University Office of Research Integrity and
Assurance,” Heitkamp said. But the evidence behind the
Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, she noted, comes from other work
as well. “Smarter Lunchroom strategies are based upon widely
researched principles of behavioral economics, as well as a
strong body of practice that supports their ongoing use.”

A spokesperson for the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement echoed
this sentiment, pointing to
studies done by
non-Cornell researchers
that support
the

program’s
strategies.

Cornell and Wansink did not return requests for comment, and
Just declined to speak with BuzzFeed News. In previous public
comments, Wansink dismissed some of the errors as minor and
inconsequential to the studies’ overall conclusions. He also
claimed that his studies have been replicated by other
researchers. “One reason some of these findings are cited so
much is because other researchers find the same types of
results,” he
told Retraction Watch in February. In March, he told the
Chronicle
of Higher Education that field studies should be taken
with a grain of salt, as opposed to research done in a
controlled setting like a laboratory. “Science is messy in a
lot of ways,” he said.

But his critics take these problems very seriously, pointing
out how rapidly his research has been adopted into the real
world.

“It’s not sufficient evidence to roll out interventions in
thousands of schools, in my opinion,” said Eric Robinson, a
behavioral scientist at the University of Liverpool, who has
found that
several of Wansink’s studies cited by the Smarter Lunchrooms
Movement made the strategies sound more effective than the
data showed.

Others
are disappointed that Wansink has, by and large, failed
to adequately address most of the alleged mistakes —
particularly when the entire field of psychological research
is being dissected for studies that
fail to hold up in repeat experiments.

Tim van der Zee, a graduate student at Leiden University in
the Netherlands and one of the first researchers to
spot errors in Wansink’s work, said that aside from
correcting and sharing data for a handful of the challenged
papers, the professor, his coauthors, and Cornell “remain
inexplicably hidden in silence.”

“One of the fundamental principles of the scientific method
is transparency — to conduct research in a way that can be
assessed, verified, and reproduced,” he told BuzzFeed News.
“This is not optional — it is imperative.”

Wansink began drawing scrutiny last November when, in
a
now-deleted blog post, he praised a grad student for
taking the data from a “failed study” of an all-you-can-eat
Italian lunch buffet and reanalyzing it multiple times until
she came up with interesting results. These findings — that,
for example,
men overeat when women are around — eventually resulted
in a series of published studies about pizza consumption.

To outside scientists, it reeked of statistical manipulation
— that the data had been sliced and diced so much that the
results were just false positives. It’s a problem that has
cropped up again and again in social science research, and
that
a growing number of scientists are trying to address by
replicating studies and calling out errors on social media.

Over the winter, van der Zee saw that Wansink’s blog post was
accruing dozens of disapproving comments. He teamed up with
two other scientists who were similarly intrigued: Nicholas
Brown, also a graduate student in the Netherlands, and Jordan
Anaya, a computational biologist in Virginia. At first they
exchanged emails with Wansink about apparent errors in four
of the pizza papers, van der Zee said. But when he stopped
replying to them, they decided to
go public with the 150 errors they’d found in the four
papers. Then Andrew Gelman, a statistician at Columbia
University, accused Wansink’s lab of manipulating the data —
or using “junk
science,” in his words
— to dress up their conclusions.

These critiques soon captured journalists’ attention. In
early February, Retraction Watch
interviewed Wansink about his disputed work, and New York
magazine
declared that “A Popular Diet-Science Lab Has Been
Publishing Really Shoddy Research.”

The next day, Wansink wrote an email to more than 40 friends
and collaborators with the subject line “Moving forward after
Pizza Gate.” He called the barrage of criticism
“cyber-bullying,” and seemed to dismiss the errors,
explaining that most stemmed from “missing data, rounding
errors, and [some numbers] being off by 1 or 2.”

He told the other scientists that the mistakes didn’t change
the conclusions of the four papers, and sought to reassure
them that they were on the right side of history.

“For a group of people who are so innovative, so
hard-working, and who try so tirelessly to make the world
healthier, this could be disheartening,” he wrote.
“Fortunately, we have too many other great ideas and
solutions that keep our eyes fixed on the horizon in front of
us.”

The horizon, as it turned out, was darker than he
anticipated, as shown in dozens of emails between Wansink and
collaborators who work at public universities, obtained via
records requests by BuzzFeed News.

After helping to dissect the pizza papers, Brown turned his
sights on the now-retracted “Can branding improve school
lunches?”

The study claimed that elementary school students were more
likely to choose an apple instead of a cookie if the apple
had an Elmo sticker on it. The takeaway: Popular brands and
cartoons could successfully promote healthy fare over junk
food.

In a blog post, Brown expressed concern about how the
data had been crunched, and confusion about how exactly the
experiment had worked. He noted that a bar graph looked much
different in an earlier version. And, he pointed out, the
scientists had said their findings could help “preliterate”
children — which seemed odd, since the children in the study
were ages 8 to 11.

In yet more scathing
blog
posts, Anaya and data scientist James Heathers pointed
out mistakes and inconsistencies in the Preventive Medicine
study, “Attractive names sustain increased vegetable intake
in schools,” which claimed that elementary school students
ate more carrots when the vegetables were dubbed “X-ray
Vision Carrots.”

Both papers were written by Wansink and Just, as well as
Collin Payne, an associate professor of marketing at New
Mexico State University. (Payne declined to comment.)

Wansink wrote to his coauthors and a few others who had
helped with the papers on Feb. 21: “Back here in Ithaca we’re
busy with a bunch of crazy stuff.”

“One of the things we’re facing is people challenging some of
our old papers,” Wansink wrote. “What our critics want to do
is to show there [sic] are bogus so they can challenge all of
the Smarter Lunchrooms policies.”

But there was a problem: He couldn’t find the data for either
study. “We can’t seem to find them,” he wrote. “Any chance
you have them in any files.”

The following week, Brown
blogged about several papers in which Wansink appeared to
have plagiarized from his previous work, and New York
magazine
wrote about it. Wansink wrote an apologetic email to
several deans at Cornell, trying to explain the “newest
saga.” He admitted that there were duplications, but believed
them all to be justified, saying at one point that certain
paragraphs were “important enough to be repeated.”

“For someone who’s been a noncontroversial person for 56
years, this has been an upsetting month, and I’m ashamed of
the difficulties it has given you, and our great Dyson
School, College, and University,” Wansink wrote.

“All the numbers seem to be within one baby carrot of each
other.”

The drama was only beginning. On March 11, Robinson, the
University of Liverpool scientist who has done similar
research, wrote to Wansink with shockingly simple questions
about some data. The number of children in the carrots paper,
he pointed out, varied throughout the paper: Sometimes it was
147, other times 113 or 115. Plus, the number of carrots that
the children put on their plates (17.1) didn’t equal the
number they ate (11.3) plus the number they didn’t eat (6.7),
as it should have.

Wansink responded: “As you know with your study about
elementary school kids and carrots, not all end up in mouths
or on the tray. Preschoolers are even worse. They spill them
on the floor or they stick them in pockets. All the numbers
seem to be within one baby carrot of each other. Still, if we
can track this data down, we’ll be able to see if this was
due to recording, rounding, or measurement.”

Robinson wasn’t satisfied. “The point the blog and then news
coverage is getting at is that this looks very suspect,” he
replied.

By then, the accusations were starting to have tangible
effects on Wansink’s career. He had been co-organizing the
Transformative
Consumer Research Conference, scheduled for June, about
how consumer behaviors affect social justice issues. But on
March 7, his co-organizer Brennan Davis, an associate
marketing professor at California Polytechnic State
University, had some bad news. (Davis declined to comment.)

“TCR leadership has asked me to ask you how you would feel
about stepping away from the TCR conference while you are
dealing with everything,” he explained over text. “I’m very
sorry to have to put this question to you.”

“Sure,” Wansink texted back. “I totally understand.”

In an email to Davis a week later, after Davis again
apologized for “the way things have gone down with the TCR
conference,” Wansink thanked him and mentioned that the
crisis had made him reflect on his life’s purpose.

“For about the past 20 years,” he wrote, “my morning
mediation [sic] begins with ‘Help me make millions of people
healthier, happier, and closer to God.’ That’s going to
continue, but it might take a different path.”

Davis was sympathetic. “I think the field needs some
‘shelter’ from this criticism,” he responded that day.
“Instead of using their skills for good, to help people do
better work, rather many of [sic] used their skills to tear
people down. And that is senseless to me.”

On March 21, van der Zee decided it was time to
formally keep track of all the issues that he and others were
finding. “The
Wansink Dossier” mushroomed into a list of dozens of
allegedly faulty papers.

Soon the editor of JAMA Pediatrics, Frederick Rivara, emailed
Wansink with a link to Brown’s critique of the Elmo apples
study. “Upon reflection, we share several of the concerns
outlined in the blog post,” Rivara wrote. In a later email,
he wrote, “There is substantial missing data.” (Rivara
declined to comment.)

Wansink consulted a few colleagues, including a public
relations director at Cornell, to figure out how to respond.
“I think I should send him a note,” he wrote. “This is data
that we can’t seem to find.”

So began a mad scramble, with the researchers combing
computers and old emails and contacting ex-colleagues in
search of the original data.

Meanwhile, the matter of the “pizza papers” remained
unresolved. On April 5,
Cornell University said that an internal investigation
had found errors, but not misconduct, in the four papers.

In a subsequent
statement of his own, Wansink pledged to reform research
practices in his lab. He had developed procedures
to prevent errors from happening and a system to catalog
anonymized data so it could be shared with outsiders, he
explained. And he apologized for the pizza papers, saying
that he’d submitted corrections to the journals in which
they’d appeared. He’d also discovered that portions of some
of his older papers had been republished elsewhere, he said,
and had informed six journals of these duplications.

As for the Elmo apples study, Wansink and his colleagues

eventually chalked the problems up to some missing data
and coding errors. They exchanged a few rounds of
explanations and reanalyses with the JAMA Pediatrics editor,
but it wasn’t enough.

“The errors in your article are pervasive,” Rivara, the
editor, wrote on May 30. “Thus, we are proceeding with a plan
to retract and replace your original publication with a
corrected version.”

The next week, Wansink published a
correction to yet another
study — also referenced by the Smarter Lunchrooms
Movement — that suggested that, in a restaurant setting,
changing a dish’s name could affect how people thought it
tasted.

And the carrots study, too, was in jeopardy. The editor of
Preventive Medicine, Eduardo Franco, had contacted Wansink to
say that “a reader” had written to the journal with concerns
about the paper, linking to both Anaya’s and Heathers’ blog
posts. (Franco did not respond to a request for comment.)

The team appears to now be looking proactively for past
missteps.

On June 13, Wansink sent Franco a correction, cc’ing Just and
Payne, among other collaborators. It was, once again, the
result of weeks of hustling to track down and reanalyze the
original data. Numbers had been missing and statistical
calculations off, Wansink wrote, but most importantly, “The
reanalysis shows the results are strong and make the same
conclusion.” (He would later note that
Stanford University researchers arrived at a similar
finding in a study of their own.)

Hours later, Payne privately replied to Wansink and Just.
“This is very impressive–and a relief!”

A month later, Franco replied to inform them that the
correction would appear in a future issue of the journal.

In a tumultuous year, it was relatively good news.

“I am thankful this morning that this one is not a retraction
and replacement,” Payne wrote to Wansink. “You and your team
do good work Brian.”

The team appears to now be looking proactively for past
missteps. On June 30, Wansink emailed several collaborators
to say that they should take a second look at a batch of
papers about World War II veterans. One of those studies
found
that those who’d experienced heavy trauma, rather than light
trauma, seemed to be less loyal to brands and more drawn to
low prices while shopping. After receiving criticisms about
the underlying data — that, for instance, “many of the people
seemed to be born way after the war,” as Wansink wrote — he
said he’d realized that some of the data entries for other
papers were duplicates or “mismatched.” He suggested that
they contact the journals to tell them they were aware of the
problems and were going to reanalyze everything. Ideally, he
told the group, they’d write a correction and “avoid the
Veteran version of PizzaGate.”

In retracting their JAMA Pediatrics apples study last week,
Wansink and his coauthors admitted to having incorrectly
described the experiment’s design and number of students
involved, used an “inadequate” data analysis method, and
mislabeled the graph. But, they said, their conclusions
remained intact.

Brown, however, has
already spotted problems in the revised paper that went
up in its place. ●

Stephanie Lee is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed
News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Stephanie M. Lee at stephanie.lee@buzzfeed.com.


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