Dr. Brian Wansink resigns from Cornell after investigation

Brian Wansink and bottomless bowl
© STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images/ demonstrating the bottomless bowl

The head of the Food and Brand Lab had a big influence on TreeHugger writers. What do we do now?

There are quite a few TreeHugger posts that have quoted Professor Brian Wansink, formerly head of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab. He's former because Cornell recently announced that an investigation concluded that he “committed academic misconduct in his research and scholarship, including misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship.” Wansink has resigned, and many of his studies have been retracted.

Some of his research has influenced my thinking; other research validated or confirmed my thoughts about kitchen design and home design – everything from the size of fridges, where he said, "In general, the larger the refrigerator, the more we tend to keep in it. And the more food options there are, the more likely something is to catch your eye as being tasty."

Then there is my favorite subject, the open kitchen, where I quote Dr. Wansink: “The first thing I suggest if you’re giving your kitchen a makeover – make it less loungeable. Recent research shows that one of the biggest determinants of low BMI in children is sitting at a table with the TV off.”

TreeHugger Melissa also adores the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.

Director Brian Wansink and his team of merry university researchers toss psychology, food science, nutrition, marketing and a bunch of other disciplines into the pot to cook up fun studies that always leave me feeling a little smarter for having read them.

She quotes him talking about lighting. “Dim lighting isn’t all bad,” says Wansink, “despite ordering less-healthy foods, you actually end up eating slower, eating less and enjoying the food more.”

In another post, Wansink tackles clutter. Melissa writes:

The Lab’s latest foray, "Clutter, Chaos, and Overconsumption: The Role of Mind-Set in Stressful and Chaotic Food Environments," tackles two hot topics in one project: Clutter and cookies! Who would have imagined that one leads to the other? But indeed, the team found that cluttered and chaotic environments can cause stress … and how do people in kitchens best attempt to snuff out stress? Open mouth, insert snack.

Slim by design dinner table© Slim By Design

This is where it all gets so hard -- because a lot of his conclusions intuitively feel right, and actually are matched by other research. I am not alone in this; Dr. James Hamblin writes in the Atlantic:

The Wansink saga has forced reflection on my own lack of skepticism toward research that confirms what I already believe, in this case that food environments shape our eating behaviors. For example, among his other retracted studies are those finding that we buy more groceries when we shop hungry and order healthier food when we preorder lunch. All of this seems intuitive.

But as a Buzzfeed expose in February noted, Wansink has been accused of manipulating his data, massaging the numbers to meet his conclusions. Stephanie Lee writes:

Now, interviews with a former lab member and a trove of previously undisclosed emails show that, year after year, Wansink and his collaborators at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab have turned shoddy data into headline-friendly eating lessons that they could feed to the masses. In correspondence between 2008 and 2016, the renowned Cornell scientist and his team discussed and even joked about exhaustively mining datasets for impressive-looking results. They strategized how to publish subpar studies, sometimes targeting journals with low standards. And they often framed their findings in the hopes of stirring up media coverage to, as Wansink once put it, “go virally big time.”

Wansink believes that he will, in the end, be exonerated, telling Hamblin:

There was no fraud, no intentional misreporting, no plagiarism, or no misappropriation. I believe all of my findings will be either supported, extended, or modified by other research groups. I am proud of my research, the impact it has had on the health of many millions of people, and I am proud of my coauthors across the world.

Hamblin suggests that we don't have to discount all of Wansink's work, but we do have to think about it differently, and "to remember that science is about asking questions, not pursuing answers."

I personally am conflicted and troubled. I liked Wansink's work because it confirmed and reinforced my opinions and biases, many of which I had before I read his books and studies; I first wrote about small fridges before he even got his job at Cornell. Questioning his results makes me question my own.

Dr. Brian Wansink resigns from Cornell after investigation
The head of the Food and Brand Lab had a big influence on TreeHugger writers. What do we do now?

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