I firmly believe that the general principles of social science can improve our understanding of the world.
Today I want to talk about two principles—division of labor from economics, and roles from sociology—and their relevance to the Pizzagate scandal involving Brian Wansink, the Cornell University business school professor and self-described “world-renowned eating behavior expert for over 25 years” whose published papers have been revealed to have hundreds of errors.
It is natural to think of “division of labor” and “roles” as going together: different people have different skill sets and different opportunities so it makes sense that they play different roles; and, conversely, the job you do is in part a consequence of your role in society.
From another perspective, though, the two principles are in conflict, in that certain logical divisions of labor might not occur because people are too stuck in playing their roles. We’ll consider such a case here.
I was talking the other day with someone about the Pizzagate story, in particular the idea that the protagonist, Brian Wansink, is in a tough position:
1. From all reports, Wansink sounds like a nice guy who cares about improving public health and genuinely wants to do the right thing. He wants to do good research because research is a way to learn about the world and to ultimately help people to make better decisions. He also enjoys publicity, but there’s nothing wrong with that: by getting your ideas out there, you can help more people. Through hard work, Wansink has achieved a position of prominence at his university and in the world.
2. However, for the past several years people have been telling Wansink that his published papers are full of errors, indeed they are disasters, complete failures that claim to be empirical demonstrations but do not even accurately convey the data used in their construction, let alone provide good evidence for their substantive claims.
3. Now put the two above items together. How can Wansink respond? So far he’s tried to address 2 while preserving all of 1: he’s acknowledged that his papers have errors and said that he plans to overhaul his workflow but at the same time had not expressed any changes in his beliefs about any of the conclusions of his research. This is a difficult position to stand by, especially going forward when questions about the quality of this work. Whether or not Wansink personally believes his claims, I can’t see why anyone else should take them seriously.
What, then, can Wansink do? I thought about and realized that, from the standpoint of division of labor, all is clear.
Wansink has some talents and is in some ways well-situated:
– He can come up with ideas for experiments that other people find interesting.
– He’s an energetic guy with a full Rolodex: he can get lots of projects going and he can inspire people to work on them.
– He’s working on a topic that affects a lot of people.
– He’s a master of publicity: he really cares about his claims and is willing to put in the effort to tell the world about them.
On the other hand, he has some weaknesses:
– He runs experiments without seeming to be aware of what data he’s collected.
– He doesn’t understand key statistical ideas.
– He publishes lots and lots of papers with clear errors.
– He seems to have difficulty mapping specific criticisms to any acceptance of flaws in his scientific claims.
Putting these together, I came up with a solution!
– Wansink should be the idea guy, he should talk with people and come up with ideas for experiments.
– Someone else, with a clearer understanding of statistics and variation, should design the data collection with an eye to minimizing bias and variance of measurements.
– Someone else should supervise the data collection.
– Someone else should analyze the data.
– Someone else should write the research papers, which should be openly exploratory and speculative.
– Wansink should be involved in the interpretation of the research results and in publicity afterward.
I made the above list in recognition that Wansink does have a lot to offer. The mistake is in thinking he needs to do all the steps.
But this is where “division of labor” comes into conflict with “roles.” Wansink’s been placed in the role of scientist, or “eating behavior expert,” and scientists are supposed to design their data collection, analyze their data, and write up their finding.
The problem here is not just that Wansink doesn’t know how to collect high-quality data, analyze them appropriately, or accurately write up the results—it’s that he can’t even be trusted to supervise these tasks.
But this shouldn’t be a problem. There are lots of things I don’t know how to do—I just don’t do them! I do lots of survey research but I’ve never done any survey interviewing. Maybe I should learn how to do survey interviews but I haven’t done so yet.
But the “rules” seem to be that the professor should do, or at least supervise, data collection, analysis, and writing of peer-reviewed papers. Wansink can’t do this. He would better employed, I think, by being part of a team where he can make his unique contributions. To make this step wouldn’t be easy: Wansink would have to give up a lot, in the sense of accepting limits on his expertise. So there are obstacles. But this seems like the logical endpoint.
P.S. Just to emphasize: This is not up to me. I’m not trying to tell Wansink or others what to do; I’m just offering my take on the situation.