You might say that my ideas seem libertarian at times — even bordering on conspiracy theory. But I can assure you that this isn’t a case of pathological paranoia. I’ve just been in this game for a long time…
Long enough to know that it’s generally played for only one reason — money.
I realize it hasn’t even been a week since I last blew the whistle on the medical research community’s crooked ties to big business. And if you haven’t been paying attention to this outrageous story, I think it’s time you do.
And sadly now, it seems we must now further extend our skepticism from what’s plastered in the mainstream headlining news to studies published in peer-reviewed medical journals.
Forgone food conclusions, up in smoke
Let’s first talk a little about Brian Wansink, the former director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University and world-renowned food researcher and “eating behavior expert.”
Recently, a Cornell faculty committee investigated Wansink and found that he had “committed academic misconduct” in his research. This comes off the heels of intense inquisition from several journalists and academics after Wansink published a blog post, inadvertently encouraging his graduate students to utilize questionable research practices, like “p-hacking” — a data manipulation technique. This ignited a two-year investigation into his work.
As a result, he’s no longer permitted to teach or conduct research, and has submitted his resignation, effective June 2019. Until then, he’s spending his time cooperating with the university in an exhaustive review of all of his research and previous studies.
Here’s why this matters: More than 20,000 other scientists have cited his research. His studies on consumption habits are a big part of what forced Big Food to offer smaller 100-calorie packages for snacks. He’s directed USDA guidelines and shaped public policy. He’s worked to develop nutritional programs with the U.S. Army and corporate giants like Google.
Simply put, Brian Wansink is a pretty big deal who’s had a hand in a lot of major health initiatives. And so is the fact that he’s been accused of massaging his data… essentially hoodwinking the scientific community.
In fact, more than a dozen of his studies have already been retracted — a researcher’s worst nightmare. Among them, research suggesting that people who grocery shop while hungry ultimately purchase higher calorie purchases. Or that bigger plates lead to bigger portions. (Conclusions you’ve probably heard before.)
So to say that this is a far-reaching problem is an understatement. People all over the world rely on this data — including me — to make recommendations for you. Which affects the dietary decisions you make every single day.
The problem with “publish or perish”
So what was this guy thinking?
Well, it’s clear that Wansink had a pretty solid understanding of how to get the media’s attention, who seemingly couldn’t get enough of his dramatic conclusions. He knew what to research and how to position the data in order to catch their eye.
Take, for instance, the suggestion that popular cookbooks (like The Joy of Cooking, for instance) — and more specifically, the higher-calorie, higher-yield recipes in newer editions — are helping to fuel America’s obesity crisis. Or his study on the “bottomless bowl” you see advertised as a lunch special at so many chain restaurants these days — which showed that if you keep refilling it, people keep eating it.
The point is, his work was influential. Food companies used it to inform their marketing. The White House used it to inform their food policies. And now, it’s all been exposed as essentially meaningless.
And believe me when I say Wansink isn’t some anomaly of the academic world. All he did was instruct his underlings to crunch the data for the most bombastic results. And the truth is, this happens every single day.
By now, I’m sure you aware that you can manipulate numbers to say just about anything you want them to. And scientists have plenty of incentive to do just that — because in academia, the motto is “publish or perish.” If the research isn’t getting fresh ink, the researchers aren’t keeping their jobs.
This is every bit as big of a problem as crooked sources of funding. Because unless scientists are allowed to fail, they won’t bother asking questions anymore. They’ll just start finding creative ways to support the answers that’ll get them the most attention.
And needless to say, “fake science” doesn’t do anyone any favors. Except, of course, the big companies who are bankrolling it.