Opinion | A Cornell Scientist’s Downfall

By David Randall

Professor Brian Wansink in Ithaca, N.Y., Dec. 6, 2016.

Professor Brian Wansink in Ithaca, N.Y., Dec. 6, 2016. Photo: Mike Groll/Associated Press

The irreproducibility crisis cost Brian Wansink his job. Over a 25-year career, Mr. Wansink developed an international reputation as an expert on eating behavior. He was the main popularizer of the notion that large portions lead inevitably to overeating. But Mr. Wansink resigned last week as head of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University and professor at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business after an investigative faculty committee found he had committed a litany of academic breaches: “misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results” and more.

Mr. Wansink defended himself to a reporter, claiming his work featured “no fraud, no intentional misreporting, no plagiarism, [and] no misappropriation.” As of this week, however, he has ceased research, and he will retire at the end of the academic year.

Mr. Wansink’s fall from grace began with a 2016 blog post in which he blithely confessed to using improper research techniques known as p-hacking and HARKing. P-hacking involves running statistical analyses until they produce a statistically significant result; HARKing stands for “hypothesizing after the results are known.” The post prompted a small group of skeptics to take a hard look at Mr. Wansink’s past scholarship. Their analysis, published in January 2017, turned up an astonishing variety and quantity of errors in his statistical procedures and data.

In April 2017, Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman charged in his blog that Mr. Wansink was guilty of “serious research misconduct: either outright fraud by people in the lab, or such monumental sloppiness that data are entirely disconnected from context, with zero attempts to fix things when problems have been pointed out.” Mr. Wansink has said he expects to be vindicated one day.

Cornell’s public judgment on Mr. Wansink is a milestone in the campaign to change how science works. Academic institutions have been slow to accept the gravity of the so-called irreproducibility crisis—the wide use of faulty research techniques that regularly produce results other scientists can’t replicate. Cornell is a force in the science world. Its actions are a sign that other academic institutions may at last be willing to change the culture of scientific research.

A generation of Mr. Wansink’s journal editors and fellow scientists failed to notice anything wrong with his research—a powerful indictment of the current system of academic peer review, in which only subject-matter experts are invited to comment on a paper before publication. Mr. Wansink’s resignation, on the other hand, points to the possibility of a cross-disciplinary approach to evaluating the reproducibility of scientific research. This new approach could even include criticism by nonscientists.

P-hacking, cherry-picking data and other arbitrary techniques have sadly become standard practices for scientists seeking publishable results. Many scientists do these things inadvertently, not realizing that the way they work is likely to lead to irreplicable results. Let something good come from Mr. Wansink’s downfall.

Mr. Randall is director of research at the National Association of Scholars.

Appeared in the September 26, 2018, print edition.