Messy Hands

A Sticky Mess of Mindless Media-Savvy Research

It started with a blog post. Brian Wansink wrote an entry for his blog and called it “The Grad Student Who Never Said No.” It quickly turned into a sticky mess. The essay described an unpaid grad student from Turkey with energy and enthusiasm for exploring data in Wansink’s lab. Wansink is famous for clever research about mindless eating.

P-Hacking and Salami-Slicing the Data?

But viewed through a different lens, that post looked like a case study of interrogating data until it surrenders. Critical comments about “p-hacking” and “salami-slicing” flew. New York magazine wrote that “a popular diet-science lab has been publishing really shoddy research.”

Four months later, the controversy is still dragging on.

Fresh Concerns and a Slow Response

This week, the Guardian wrote about “fresh concerns” over the academic conduct of Wansink’s lab. These concerns relate to issues of self-plagiarism and duplicate publication of data. Revisiting the issue, New York says that Wansink and Cornell have been been slow “to offer up a meaningful response to this steady drumbeat of serious allegations.”

Wansink says he’s working on it:

Recent questions have arisen regarding statistical methods which I utilize in my research. I, along with my colleagues at Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, take these questions very seriously. We are currently conducting a full review of studies in question, preparing comprehensive data which will be shared and establishing new standards for future operations at the lab which will include how we respond to requests for research information.

This is no fun. These questions about scientific integrity are serious. They will be tedious to address. Answers to those questions will have serious consequences.

A Cheap Shot

But apart from the questions of scientific integrity, one other thing about this sticky mess seems especially troubling. The blog that started this controversy included snarky jabs at a postdoctoral fellow. That postdoc declined to conduct what became the questionable analyses. Wansink suggested that “Facebook, Twitter, Game of Thrones, Starbucks, and spinning class” kept that postdoc from doing more serious work. It was a rather public shaming.

Karma is harsh. This episode started with ridicule for a lowly postdoc. It evolved into a serious problem for the famous scholar who wrote that ridicule.

People in positions of power should think twice before taking cheap shots at folks with far less status.

Messy Hands, photograph © Dank Spangle / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


March 4, 2017

One Response to “A Sticky Mess of Mindless Media-Savvy Research”

  1. March 04, 2017 at 6:38 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    Lots of words to the wise here, Ted.

    Thank you.