One more reason to not believe everything you read on the internet

By Tim Nelson
Updated February 28, 2018
Credit: Photo by Stan Honda via Getty Images

The internet is rife with shaky nutritional advice, much of which already sounds too good to be true. But an investigation into pseudoscientific practices at Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab shows just how easy it is for academics to game the system, abusing their authority to churn out bogus findings.

According to emails obtained by Buzzfeed, Brian Wansink, Cornell’s head of food psychology research at the school's Food and Brand Lab, made a routine habit of pumping out clickbait food studies, often jettisoning foundational tenets of the scientific method and statistical research. To date, six of his studies have been retracted, and others have received further scrutiny.

Professors and researchers familiar with the data who spoke to Buzzfeed accused Wansink and his team of “p-hacking,” a process of chopping up data in an arbitrary manner until a statistically significant pattern emerges. The subsequent groupings often had no relationship to an experiment’s initial hypothesis, but could attract online attention. In one example from a now-retracted study about buffet prices and eating habits, that allowed Wansink and his team to turn a “failed study” with “null results” into something that could still be published and breathlessly covered online.

Wansik was able to turn his junk nutritional science into a cottage industry by preying on our hunger for knowledge about healthier eating. His studies often started with a desired end outcome in mind, working backwards to ensure data produced a viral result rather than simply proving or disproving a stated hypothesis. His emails also suggested giving papers more “shameless” titles, and elements of studies were often chosen for their potential to captivate readers rather than anything approaching sound theory. The end result isn’t science as much as content creation backed by a veneer of scholarly authority.

The pressures inherent in the “publish or perish” model that prevails at universities also played a role. With funding and tenure decisions dictated by where and how often one’s work appears in academic journals, Wansink’s strategy centered on gaming that system. He encouraged his team to manufacture as much content for publication as possible, often eschewing quality of research in order to get something—anything—into even second- or third-rate journals. That approach helped Wansink attract $22 million in funding for the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, a federal program that used a now-retracted study as evidence for its efficacy.

Though it’s hard to know how many Food and Brand Lab studies will ultimately be retracted, let the story of Brian Wansink is a (further) warning not to believe everything you read on the internet. He played directly into our desire to consume fantastical information about food and trust anything seemingly backed by a scientific authority. At a time when the truth and what gets clicks can often diverge, it’s certainly worrying that scientists like Wansink are just as capable of manufacturing fake news.