Courtesy of Cornell University

Prof. Brian Wansink, the director and founder of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, has made a series of retractions, which students who worked with him say stained their and Cornell's reputations.

March 5, 2018

New Controversies Emerge Surrounding Cornell Professor’s Fundraiser and Studies

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Another week, another scandal for Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab and its founder, Prof. Brian Wansink.

In the last 10 days: A cookbook company roasted Wansink’s research on Twitter, donors to an online fundraiser created by Wansink said he never followed through on the project after raising more than $10,000 and a journal retracted another Wansink study — his sixth retracted paper.

Six former members of the Food and Brand Lab told The Sun that Wansink urged undergraduate students — some of whom had little or no experience — to use frowned-upon research methods to produce findings that would bring media exposure to the lab.

Some former members told The Sun they are embarrassed to have worked in Wansink’s lab and said their research at Cornell is now stained by the public reckoning and negative media exposure of the lab.

In a lecture in the fall of 2017, Wansink told students that the slew of retractions was one of the “biggest lows” in his career, recalled Candace Choe ’18, a former social media intern in his lab who sat in on the class. Wansink is currently listed as a professor for one spring class on consumer behavior and a food and brand workshop in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

Interviews with students and emails obtained by BuzzFeed indicate that Wansink would ask students to run a regression analysis on data and, if they didn’t find anything significant, encouraged them to form a new hypothesis, a practice scientists say is inappropriate and sometimes call data HARKing, or hypothesizing after the results are known.

Arianna Ulloa ’16, who worked as an intern in the lab in 2014, said she left the lab before her internship ended because she was appalled by what she said were Wansink’s unethical research methods.

“I remember him saying it so clearly: ‘Just keep messing with the data until you find something,’” she recalled in an interview.

“All his methods are so unethical that I can’t understand how an institution like Cornell could keep him on as a professor and keep paying him,” Ulloa said. “It’s quite a bummer that he’s still employed by the University at all.”

Cornell conducted an internal review of Wansink’s research in 2017 and found “numerous instances of inappropriate data handling and statistical analysis” but the the errors “did not constitute scientific misconduct,” John Carberry, a spokesperson, said on April 5 of last year.

Cornell opened another investigation in October and Carberry has declined to answer any questions about Wansink or the ongoing investigation.

Choe said she is concerned that Wansink will not face harsh enough consequences because of the “money and attention” that the lab brings to Cornell. “But they’re promoting shams and non-scientific methods,” she said.

Carter Broad ’18, who enrolled in a year-long seminar in Wansink’s lab starting in 2017, attributed many of the lab’s research errors to Wansink’s desire for “wow factor” results, which would bring positive media coverage.

“It’s embarrassing,” Broad said in an interview. “Professor Wansink’s reputation has delegitimized my research experience here.”

“This was the first time I was immersed in any research like that,” he continued. “I didn’t know how blurry the lines could be. I wasn’t sure if this was normal, if this is how research should be conducted in consumer behavior research field.”

Ellen Ransley ’19 previously told The Sun that she left the laboratory after a year of working as a research assistant because she “didn’t want to be associated with” the laboratory once researchers, and then journalists, began questioning its research.

Another alumna, who worked in the lab as an undergraduate in 2013 and spoke on the condition of anonymity, previously told The Sun that lab members “already had the result that we wanted in our minds” and that they aimed to draw conclusions that were “quite the jump.”

Ulloa, the former intern, said she was working in the lab when Wansink launched an online fundraiser through Kickstarter to create a weight-loss program using a Wansink-created method called Slim by Design.

Wansink racked up more than $10,000 in donations from 76 donors during the 2014 fundraiser, first reported by BuzzFeed, but the program has not materialized.

In an email to The Sun, Wansink said that “the program’s still bubbling along, but not ready yet.”

On the fundraiser website in 2014, he wrote that “We believe in transparency and communication, so our backers will be the first to know about any unplanned hurdles or delays.”

Multiple donors told The Sun that Wansink failed to answer emails requesting updates since 2014. When BuzzFeed first inquired about the fundraiser, Wansink apologized to donors in an email for never delivering the online program.

“I was a bit too optimistic about both the timeline and the costs of working with professional programmers,” he said in the email to all donors. He said he put the project “on the back-burner” after some hurdles and developed a website and app, both of which he said were launched in testing form and then taken down.

One donor, Kantha Shelke, a lecturer and food science researcher, said she has known Wansink professionally for over a decade and that he personally asked her to donate to the 2014 campaign. Shelke sent three emails to Wansink over a year requesting updates but never heard back until February of this year, she said.

“This is one of those things that sort of grew out of control,” Wansink said of the campaign in an email directly to Shelke. “A former student thought they could get this figured out and up on line, but it proved to be beyond their ability.”

The whole experience “left a bad taste in my mouth,” Shelke said.

Ulloa said she helped with the beginning stages of building the Slim by Design Method website in 2014, meeting with other interns in the basement of Wansink’s home to discuss the project, which she said lacked direction. She said Wansink had hired a computer scientist to build the website.

The largest sponsor of the Kickstarter, which raised $10,681, was behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who pledged $5,000, according to a tweet from Wansink in 2014. Ariely told The Sun that he was not surprised that the program never launched, noting that Kickstarter is a platform for amateurs just starting out.

Ulloa said she worked with Wansink on a manuscript for a paper called “Fighting the Freshman Fifteen: A Qualitative Analysis of Changes that Higher Institutions can make to Prevent Student Weight Gain” and submitted it to the Journal of American College Health.

The journal rejected the paper, and an executive editor said it lacked adequate scientific evidence and suffered from “methodological and structural issues,” according to an email from Kevin Swanson, who worked in the journal’s editorial office, to Wansink, which was obtained by The Sun.

In the email, a journal editor questioned whether Wansink’s findings in the paper were innovative.

“Is it a novel finding that the two primary themes associated with weight maintenance/loss relate to exercise and physical activity?” an unidentified executive editor said in comments on the paper. “Moreover, much of the novel strategies proffered have been utilized or leveraged in programs instituted in K-12 schools – a literature base that is ignored by the author(s).”

One journal, Preventive Medicine, retracted a sixth Wansink paper last month, which had focused on children’s eating habits in school cafeterias.

The 2012 paper, to which editors had already issued a correction, concluded that elementary school children were more likely to choose vegetables at lunchtime when they were given attractive names, such as “X-ray Vision Carrots.”

The original study said participants were children from between 8 and 11 years old from five elementary schools, but the corrected study said the participants were actually between 3 and 5.

Wansink and his co-authors, in response to the correction, said “these mistakes and omissions do not change the general conclusion of the paper that attractive names increase vegetable intake in schools across a wide age-range of children.”

Nonetheless, the journal retracted the study on Feb. 26.

Collin Payne, a New Mexico State University professor who co-authored the retracted paper and wrote about two dozen other studies about healthy eating with Wansink, is no longer employed by the school, BuzzFeed News reported.

Cookbook brand Joy of Cooking added to the public outrage surrounding Wansink’s research, tweeting from the company’s official account on Feb. 27 that Wansink is a “bad researcher” and that his lab is a “buzz-maximizing factory.”

The cookbook company said that Wansink cherry picked recipes and made up portion sizes in a 2009 study, “The Joy of Cooking Too Much: 70 Years of Calorie Increases in Classic Recipes,” that the cookbook company said smeared its name.

The 2009 study concluded that calorie density and serving sizes in recipes from The Joy of Cooking have increased since 1936 and suggests that the cookbook is contributing to the obesity epidemic in America. The study analyzed 7 editions of The Joy of Cooking to determine how serving sizes and calorie density have changed over the past 70 years.

“Regardless of their agenda (raising awareness of over-eating, calorie intake), Wansink is a bad researcher, and the rote repetition of his work needs to stop,” Joy of Cooking wrote in a series of tweets.