Feb 27, 2018

The food scientist who manipulated data to make headlines

It's apple pie. Like a pie chart. (Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)


Brian Wansink, a food scientist at Cornell University who gained fame for his headline-ready research, manipulated his poor data to produce false-positives and attention-grabbing results, writes Stephanie M Lee for Buzzfeed. Wansink is under investigation by Cornell for academic misconduct, and several papers have been retracted.

Why you should care: Wansink isn’t the only scientist to use sneaky statistics — they're not uncommon in food science, genetics and other fields. But Buzzfeed’s reporting shows that Wansink, one of the most well-known offenders, is also possibly one of the worst.

“He hadn’t really looked at the results critically and he was trying to make the paper say something that wasn’t true,” Krissika Kaipanen, a former graduate student in Wasink’s lab, told Lee. “That’s when I started feeling like, this is not the kind of research I want to do.”

What they did:

  • Gathering the data first, and then develop a hypothesis that fit that data. In science, you should have a hypothesis first and then design an experiment to test it.
  • “That was weird also,” Kaipanen told Lee, “to come up with some questions not based on any theory, just ‘What would be cool to ask?’, ‘What cool headlines could we get if we got some associations?’"
  • Slicing large datasets and ‘p-hacking’ to get statistically significant results.

It’s unclear if Wansink did this with malicious intent. His former lab members, even those who criticize his science, speak of him fondly. In fact, although Wansink’s science has been scrutinized for years, it wasn’t until he described his own research practices in a blog post that the criticism rolled in.

Sound smart: P-hacking is the practice of using large datasets to find spurious correlations. It works because a lot of statistics in science comes down to the p-value, which measures the statistical robustness of an experiment. It’s best described as the probability that your experiment’s results could have occurred by chance, if your hypothesis were false. It’s the likelihood of a false-positive. Most studies require a p-value of 0.05, or a 5% chance of the finding being a false-positive, to get published. But that means studies like Wasink’s that sometimes test thousands of variables will inevitably find associations that aren’t true.

Go deeper: Read the entire story at Buzzfeed, and their prior reporting on Wansink. FiveThirtyEight’s Christie Aschwanden has a great round-up of what p-hacking is, and why it’s so easy to find spurious correlations in food science (and certain types of genetics studies and social science studies).

Go deeper

World coronavirus updates: Half of the globe is on lockdown

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens and confirmed plus presumptive cases from the CDC

About half of the planet's population is on lockdown amid the coronavirus crisis.

The latest: About half of deaths worldwide are in Italy and Spain, with fatalities exponentially increasing all over Europe. The global death toll exceeded 55,000 on Friday, per Johns Hopkins data.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 1 hour ago - Health

U.S. coronavirus updates: 700,000 jobs lost in March, death toll still rising

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The U.S. lost 701,000 jobs in March, but the report doesn't reflect the height of the virus' impact on the economy. The jobless hits right now are like a natural disaster striking every state at the same time.

The state of play: Payments to Americans from the $2.2 trillion stimulus package will be distributed in mid-April, but those without IRS direct deposit accounts may not receive checks until August, according to a House Ways and Means Committee memo first reported by CNN and confirmed by Axios.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 1 hour ago - Health

Skepticism rises over government's small business bailouts

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

America today launched its $350 billion bailout for small businesses, and already there is widespread skepticism that the program will run smoothly or be large enough to meet demand.

What's new: House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy yesterday said that the affiliation rule will be waived for any company with less than 500 employees that doesn't have a controlling outside shareholder, thus making most VC-backed startups eligible for PPP loans. This was based on a conversation he'd just had with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.