Food researcher and Cornell Professor Brian Wansink, author of the popular book Mindless Eating, has been in the news lately. 13 of his published articles have been retracted by peer-reviewed journals, including 6 articles retracted by JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association). They were retracted because several researchers found inconsistencies and major methodological flaws in the work.
What does this mean? Things like using the same data to test multiple research questions (also called p-hacking), not keeping track of original data, and using the same results across multiple papers, mixing them in with other data and offering inconsistent reports on them. All in pursuit of a statistically significant result that confirms the researcher’s intuition about what’s going on.
After detailed investigation by researchers, the journals, and also by Cornell, Brian Wansink resigned from the university.
You may have read or seen his work on how we can eat less by doing some of the following:
- use smaller bowls and plates
- use lighter-colored bowls and plates
- don’t eat while watching action shows on TV
- don’t buy large-sized containers of food (like those sold at warehouse stores)
- put apples on the kitchen counter
- put snacks into 100-calorie portions for eating
Wansink is perhaps most famous for his “Bottomless soup bowl” experiment. His group set up 4-person tables with soup bowls for people to come in and eat the soup. Secretly, they rigged one of the bowls with a tube that made that soup bowl keep from emptying (up to about a liter). They noted how much soup everyone ate. Their result: people who ate from the rigged soup bowl consumed 73% more soup than the other people. You can find more about the study here.
I’m very disheartened by Wansink’s academic misconduct for a lot of reasons. First, I was really impressed by his research more than 10 years ago; it confirmed what I thought, namely that our food environment influences what and how and when and how much we eat. This is still broadly true, by the way. However, the specific results Wansink provided (like that people eat more chicken wings in restaurants when you take away the bones as they are eating) may not be true.
I’ve cited Wansink’s articles dozens of times in my own published research. I’m going to have to rethink how to respond to their invalidation. Also, I’ve spent some time at Wansink’s Food and Brand Lab at Cornell, and talked with him about our overlapping research interests. He’s enthusiastic about his work, ambitious about getting his message out to the public, and has been very effective in publicity.
But the biggest problem is this: what to do with all his advice about portion sizes, plate sizes, moving foods around in my eating world to highlight carrots and hide cookies?
What can we know now? What can we rely on now?
Now, you might be thinking: Catherine, get a grip. One researcher goes down in flames, and you’re saying we don’t know anything anymore. How about try this:
Yes, yes, you’re right. I’m calming down now.
Doing good research is hard, requiring rigorous adherence to methodological standards, a high tolerance for failure, and the stamina to keep going.
For us, the food eaters, we don’t need rigor in order to eat successfully. We’ve written about eating mindfully, following plans, discarding plans, considering the ethical import of what we eat, and we’ve come to the conclusion that one plan doesn’t fit all.
But I really really wanted some plans that did fit all. Just saying. And I’m not happy.
Well, like it or not, it’s back to the kitchen, with an open mind.
What about you, dear readers? Did any of you know about or use Wansink’s work? What do you think now? I’d love to hear from you.