If you’ve ever clicked on a salacious “This [Food/Behavior] Is Making You Fat” headline through Facebook, you’re probably familiar with the work of Brian Wansink, Ph.D., a professor at Cornell University and the director of Cornell’s massively influential Food and Brand Lab. The behavioral economist and food psychologist has made a living using research to show how a slew of surprising factors—from label designs to plate sizes to the color of your cutlery—can all subtly influence your eating habits.
In the past, Wansink has been presidentially appointed to direct the U.S. Dietary Guidelines and the Food Guide Pyramid, and he served as the president of the Society for Nutrition Education from 2011 to 2012. But despite the sterling credentials, some of his groundbreaking research may not be all it’s cracked up to be, as Cornell tells BuzzFeed News that an investigation into several of Wansink’s studies is underway.
The marketing guru has faced his fair share of scrutiny this year, but the irony is that Wansink himself may have been the one to kickstart the questioning. Last November, Wansink published a (since-deleted) blog post in which he described tasking a former grad student with salvaging something from a data set of a costly (and self-funded) study that proved inconclusive.
After Wansink posted the five published papers that resulted from the data expedition, many critics quickly pointed out that Wansink basically admitted to spinning statistically significant data relationships into flimsy, albeit very media-friendly findings that fit his hypothesis. In the research world, this is called p-hacking, and it’s a huge no-no.
In April, Cornell revealed that it had looked into the faulty studies and said that “while numerous instances of inappropriate data handling and statistical analysis were alleged,” the errors weren’t enough to count as scientific misconduct.
It’s unclear what prompted Cornell to reopen the investigation into Wansink’s research, and which of his myriad studies are under the microscope. But there are plenty to choose from. Independent researchers have flagged the Food and Brand Lab’s claims that using smaller plates will make you eat less; men are at risk of overeating in social settings; keeping a bowl of fruit on your counter will lower your BMI; kids will eat their veggies if they have cool names; and lower buffet prices lead to less taste satisfaction, among others, for inconsistencies.
Need a good place to start? Find 18 of Wansink’s papers in the Retraction Watch Database.