Brian Wansink, the Cornell Professor Known for His Fun Food Research, Retires Amid Scandal

Accused of misconduct, he stands by the integrity of his work.

Associated Press

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Brian Wansink, the celebrated Cornell University behavioral scientist whose studies have come under increasing scrutiny because of alleged problems with data and methodology, has told Cornell he intends to retire. He gave notice, in a letter he shared with Mother Jones, one day after the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) retracted six articles based on his research. 

In a just-released statement, Cornell said that its internal investigation “found that Professor Wansink 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.” The statement went on to say that Wansink “has been removed from all teaching and research. Instead, he will be obligated to spend his time cooperating with the university in its ongoing review of his prior research.”

The subject of a 2015 profile I wrote for Mother Jones magazine, Wansink became a media darling thanks to his relatable and fun-to-talk-about studies pertaining to food and human behavior. Among his findings, for example, were that bigger plates lead to bigger servings of food and that people who sit closer to an all-you-can-eat buffet tend to eat more than those who dine farther away.

The criticism of Wansink’s work began in January 2017, when a team of researchers turned up more than 150 errors in four of Wansink’s studies. Wansink defended his work, arguing that social science isn’t as “definitive” as hard science. “These sorts of studies are either first steps, or sometimes they’re real world demonstrations of existing lab findings,” he told the scientific integrity watchdog Retraction Watch.  

In April 2017, Cornell’s initial investigation into Wansink’s work found mistakes but no ethical problems or misconduct. Yet the criticism kept coming. A Buzzfeed investigation this past February found more problems with his data analysis. Yesterday, in a notice that accompanied the retraction of his articles, JAMA reported that Cornell had informed the journal editors, “We regret that, because we do not have access to the original data, we cannot assure you that the results of the studies are valid.” 

Despite the mounting criticism, Wansink, 58, continues to stand by his work. In an email to his lab colleagues that he shared with Mother Jones yesterday, he wrote, “I’m very proud of all of these papers and all of the work we’ve done together.”

His retirement will take effect next June.

This article has been updated. 

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

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Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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