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Cornell University Food Scientist Under Fire For Manipulating Data

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Brian Wansink of Cornell University's Food Lab Brand is again in hot water for questionable research. The food scientist recalled another study - his sixth.

Wansink, 57, who is known for his studies on food and eating habits, was exposed by Buzzfeed senior technology reporter Stephenie Lee. According to Lee, Wansink manipulated data to produce studies that would go viral.

Wansink and his team of researchers allegedly transformed low-quality data into headline-friendly research that lacks the scientific basis. Their latest study that was recalled is the "Attractive names sustain increase vegetable intake in schools" published in 2012.

Who Is Brian Wansink?

Wansink became a professor of consumer behavior at the Stanford University. He also taught marketing, agricultural economics, advertising, and nutritional science at the University of Illinois before transferring to Cornell University in 2005. Wansink founded Cornell's Food and Lab Brand.

During his term as former executive director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, Wansink led the development of several nutrition programs.

He also helped initiate the Smarter Lunchroom Movements that developed and gave ratings to low-cost strategies, which lunchrooms can use to improve consumption of healthy food and reduce food waste. The strategies used in the program are based on various research from the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs.

Wansink's profile on his website described him as a world-renowned eating behavior expert. At one point, he was also described as "The Sherlock Holmes of Food." He has written two books and more than 100 research papers on the subject matter of psychology of eating.

Bad Research?

Lee has uncovered a series of e-mail exchanges between Wansink and his collaborators, which reportedly revealed Wansink's questionable research practices such as conducting data gathering first, and subsequently, the development of hypotheses to fit the data.

This practice contradicts the scientific method of research in which a problem is identified, relevant data are gathered, a hypothesis is formulated from these data, and the hypothesis is empirically tested.

Wansink and his team used p-hacking or data dredging that uncover patterns in large a data set that can be presented as statistically significant, even without hypotheses. He was also previously investigated by Cornell University for previous errors, corrections, and self-plagiarism.

"Given the number of errors cited and their repeated nature, we established a process in which Professor Wansink would engage external statistical experts to validate his review and reanalysis of the papers and attendant published errata," the Cornell University said in an April 2017 statement in reaction to questions about Wansink's studies.

An earlier research pointed out 150 errors in four of Wansink's study on buffets.

The Wansink Dossier

Following Lee's expose, food and recipe website The Joy of Cooking recently claimed that it was a victim of Wansink's bad research.

In 2009, a descriptive study by Wansink's Food and Lab Brand concluded that caloric content and portion size has increased in The Joy of Cooking's collection of recipes based on 18 recipes published in seven editions of the popular cookbook.

In a series of Twitter posts, the cookbook rebutted Wansink's study and even shared the "The Wansik Dossier," a compilation of criticisms of Wansink's research. The compilation contained Wansink's corrected and recalled articles as well as publications that contained minor to very serious issues.

The Wansik Dossier also flagged Wansink's data inconsistencies, mathematical impossibilities, errors, duplications, exaggerations, eyebrow-raising interpretations, and instances of self-plagiarism.

"One of the fundamental principles of the scientific method is transparency - to conduct research in a way that can be assessed, verified, and reproduced," said Tim van der Zee, a Leiden University graduate student who maintains The Wansink Dossier website with fellow researchers Nick Brown, Jordan Anaya, and James Heathers.

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