Bill Wingell / The New York Times

Prof. Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, pictured here in 2006, faced claims of 150 data inconsistencies across four of his publications.

March 8, 2017

Cornell Food Lab Conducting Internal Review After Report Alleging 150 Data Inconsistencies

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The founder and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab has come under fire in recent months from researchers who allege that the popular marketing and food psychology professor, Brian Wansink, co-authored papers that include more than 150 data inconsistencies, used shoddy methods of data analysis and reused nearly-identical text in multiple publications.

Wansink issued a statement on Tuesday in which he said the Food and Brand Lab is conducting “internal and independent” investigations of “a small set of studies” from 2014 and 2015 and that the review should be completed within the next few weeks.

Wansink dismissed additional claims made by a Ph.D. student in the Netherlands who showed clear instances in which Wansink reused his own text nearly word-for-word in separate publications.

“I have been accused of reusing portions of my own work in later papers on the same or related topics,” Wansink said in his statement. “The observation is, of course, true.”

The food psychology lab founder said he “re-emphasized” key paragraphs from a previous journal article five times over 25 years and expanded several of his previous works “to underscore or expand on its conclusions, and to continue to advance this field of research.”

The Food and Brand Lab, which moved from the University of Illinois to Cornell with Wansink in 2005, conducts research in psychology, food science, marketing, nutrition and other fields to “discover how humans relate to food with the end goal of uncovering solutions to improve eating environments and help individuals eat better,” according to its website.

The allegations of poor research practices and data inconsistencies are likely to pose a longer-lasting problem for Wansink and the lab, both of which have been featured in articles from nearly every national outlet, from The Atlantic to the Chicago Tribune to The New York Times.

In January, three scholars published an investigation into four papers Wansink co-authored on pizza-eating habits at a restaurant about 30 miles from Ithaca and found a surprising number of discrepancies involving impossible sample sizes, incorrectly calculated statistics and impossible averages and standard deviations.

The number of alleged errors itself posed a challenge to the scholars reviewing Wansink’s work, who found it difficult to isolate which statistic was false.

“The accumulation of multiple inconsistencies across articles makes it difficult to identify which of the reported statistics are correct and which are erroneous,” the researchers — Tim van der Zee, Jordan Anaya and Nicholas J. L. Brown — wrote.

“None of us can remember encountering a set of articles with as many inconsistencies and unresolved questions in the basic reporting of results as in this case,” they continued. “Until such an explanation is forthcoming, we suggest that the research community may wish to exercise caution in interpreting the results presented in the four target articles.”

The vast number of impossibilities and inconsistencies led one of the researchers, Anaya, to provocatively call Wansink “The Donald Trump of Food Research” in a blog post.

“Trump doesn’t let facts or data get in his way, and neither does Wansink,” Anaya wrote. “When Plan A fails, he just moves on to Plan B, Plan C…Plan ?”

Wansink did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Sun.

The Stanford-educated researcher’s problems began with a blog post he added to his personal website in November, titled “The Grad Student Who Never Said ‘No.’” Fellow researchers found the post and claimed the food psychology researcher was encouraging graduate students to cherry-pick from data sets that were otherwise insignificant in order to kickstart their careers.

Allegations began to snowball once the blog post received more attention. Researchers made claims of data inconsistencies and “self-plagiarism,” and one associate professor criticized the Food and Brand Lab for demonstrating what he said was a “troublesome trend” of researchers putting public relations in front of practicing ethically and statistically sound research.

Andrew Gelman, director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University, raised the possibility in a post on his website that Wansink has been using sub-par methods to create “noisy, meaningless research” that correctly confirm insights he has made based on years of research and experiment.

“The idea is that Wansink and others, based on a mix of insight and decades of careful qualitative observation and experiment, have come up with a good understanding of why we eat the way we do, and then they use these experiments as a way of filling in the picture,” Gelman wrote, emphasizing that his post was just a theory.

“This is similar to the idea that an astrologer or fortune-teller might actually be able to give good advice, with the tarot cards or tea leaves serving as a pretext or even a stimulus for real insights.”