I’ve written about Brian Wansink before, but here you go, a grand summary of the bad science at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. They’ve gone over an archive of emails, and it’s worse than I ever imagined: they’ve just been churning over crappy studies, looking for garbage associations that will go “viral”. It’s embarrassingly awful.
“That’s p-hacking on steroids,” said Kristin Sainani, an associate professor of health research and policy at Stanford University. “They’re running every possible combination of variables, essentially, to see if anything will come up significant.”
In a conversation about another study in August 2015, Wansink mentioned a series of experiments that “were chasing interactions that were hard to find.” He apparently hoped that they would all arrive at the same conclusion, which is “bad science,” said Susan Wei, an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Minnesota.
“It does very much seem like this Brian Wansink investigator is a consistent and repeated offender of statistics,” Wei added. “He’s so brazen about it, I can’t tell if he’s just bad at statistical thinking, or he knows that what he’s doing is scientifically unsound but he goes ahead anyway.”
Everything they do in that lab is stuff I was told way back in the beginning of my career was bad. They do “experiments” without a prior hypothesis — they’re just fishing out of pool of lots of meaningless numbers that they generate by collecting observations of shitloads of variables. Then they crunch away at it until they find a correlation that they can build a paper around, and shop the paper around until it finds a journal with low enough standards to publish it.
In the first year biology class I’m teaching right now, I have a lecture or two at the end of the term on bioethics. This is going to be the case study we’ll go over this year. I’m wondering what’s wrong with Wansink’s education that he never learned that you don’t get to do any of this, since he’s oblivious to his sins.
I also have to point out (probably won’t in class, though) that the real problem here is that Wansink hasn’t been doing science — he’s been doing marketing, and marketing is an evil of capitalism. Please keep your capitalism out of our science, OK?
By the way, this was on Buzzfeed, and Buzzfeed gets a bad rap. I know there’s a big pile of capitalism tainting Buzzfeed, too, which has had more of a reputation for click-baity quizzes and pop news, but their news division is actually pretty good — it’s like a circus that opened a serious news outlet and hired real reporters to staff it, unlike some of the news networks that hired clowns to read the news at you. Virginia Hughes is the science editor there, and she’s serious and smart and is part of a good team that has been doing some exemplary reporting.