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

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. 

THE BIG QUESTION...

as we head into 2020 is whether politics and media will be a billionaires’ game, or a playing field where the rest of us have a shot. That's what Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein tackles in her annual December column—"Billionaires Are Not the Answer"—about the state of journalism and our plans for the year ahead.

We can't afford to let independent reporting depend on the goodwill of the superrich: Please help Mother Jones build an alternative to oligarchy that is funded by and answerable to its readers. Please join us with a tax-deductible, year-end donation so we can keep going after the big stories without fear, favor, or false equivalency.

THE BIG QUESTION...

as we head into 2020 is whether politics and media will be a billionaires’ game, or a playing field where the rest of us have a shot.

Please read our annual column about the state of journalism and Mother Jones' plans for the year ahead, and help us build an alternative to oligarchy by supporting our people-powered journalism with a year-end gift today.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.