Brian Wansink

What Happens When PR Overtakes Science?

Bottomless Bowl CartoonBrian Wansink has a gift for conceiving research into eating behavior that has long been “catnip for the media.” Now, after a year of contesting accusations of misconduct, he’s resigned from Cornell University. Last week, JAMA retracted six of his papers in a single day. According to Retraction Watch, that makes a total of 13 retractions. One of them twice. In addition, journals have issued corrections for 15 of his papers. Is this the inevitable result when PR overtakes science?

The Awkward Marriage of Science and PR

Academic PR often feels like a awkward marriage. Good scientists are very careful about sticking to the facts. A good PR person starts with the facts and works to engage the imagination. What does this mean to the public?

So we see it play out in daily reporting on nutrition and obesity research. Sometimes the coverage serves to inform the public. But other times it serves to reinforce simplistic thinking that’s plainly false. Correlations (like household cleaners and childhood obesity) become cause and effect relationships in the press. We see it literally every day.

Policymakers use insignificant fluctuations in thin data on prevalence to brag that we’re turning the corner on childhood obesity. Examples of twisting science to serve an agenda are plentiful. They give us a lot to write about here.

Pressure to Publish?

Vox suggests that the real story here is about pressure to publish – or perish – in academia.

To be more competitive for grants, scientists have to publish their research in respected scientific journals. For their work to be accepted by these journals, they need positive (i.e., statistically significant) results.

That puts pressure on labs like Wansink’s to do what’s known as p-hacking. The “p” stands for p-values, a measure of statistical significance. Typically, researchers hope their results yield a p-value of less than .05 – the cutoff beyond which they can call their results significant.

The Catnip of Media and PR

Taking a lesson about p-hacking and publishing pressures away from this episode is perfectly reasonable. But it glosses over some of the unique dimensions of this situation.

As much as Wansink’s studies were “catnip” for the media, it’s possible that the media was catnip for Wansink and his lab. He enjoyed a great deal of visibility and the sales of a very popular book – Mindless Eating. His Food and Brand Lab had a glitzy website that served to brand his research.

All of this started unraveling when Wansink belittled a post-doc who wasn’t doing enough to feed the publication machine. This sad story gives us much more to think about than just p-hacking and research integrity. It’s worth thinking about what happens when PR overtakes science. But even more so, we are thinking about the consequences of pursuing public attention at the expense of personal integrity.

Click here, here, and here to read more about this sad misadventure.

Brian Wansink, self portrait, public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

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September 23, 2018