A reporter was asking me the other day about the Brian Wansink “pizzagate” scandal. The whole thing is embarrassing for journalists and bloggers who’ve been reporting on this guy’s claims entirely uncritically for years. See here, for example. Or here and here. Or here, here, here, and here. Or here. Or here, here, here, . . .
The journalist on the phone was asking me some specific questions: What did I think of Wansink’s work (I think it’s incredibly sloppy, at best), Should Wansink release his raw data (I don’t really care), What could Wansink do at this point to restore his reputation (Nothing’s gonna work at this point), etc.
But then I thought of another question: How was Wansink able to get away with it for so long. Remember, he got called on his research malpractice a full 5 years ago; he followed up with some polite words and zero action, and his reputation wasn’t dented at all.
The problem, it seems to me, is that Wansink has had virtually no opposition all these years.
It goes like this. If you do work on economics, you’ll get opposition. Write a paper claiming the minimum wage helps people and you’ll get criticism on the right. Write a paper claiming the minimum wage hurts people and you’ll get criticism on the left. Some—maybe most—of this criticism may be empty, but the critics are motivated to use whatever high-quality arguments are at their disposal, so as to improve their case.
Similarly with any policy-related work. Do research on the dangers of cigarette smoking, or global warming, or anything else that threatens a major industry, and you’ll get attacked. This is not to say that these attacks are always (or never) correct, just that you’re not going to get your work accepted for free.
What about biomedical research? Lots of ambitious biologists are running around, all aiming for that elusive Nobel Prize. And, so I’ve heard, many of the guys who got the prize are pushing everyone in their labs to continue publishing purported breakthrough after breakthrough in Cell, Science, Nature, etc. . . . What this means is that, if you publish a breakthrough of your own, you can be sure that the sharks will be circling, and lots of top labs will be out there trying to shoot you down. It’s a competitive environment. You might be able to get a quick headline or two, but shaky lab results won’t be able to sustain a Wansink-like ten-year reign at the top of the charts.
Even food research will get opposition if it offends powerful interests. Claim to have evidence that sugar is bad for you, or milk is bad for you, and yes you might well get favorable media treatment, but the exposure will come with criticism. If you make this sort of inflammatory claim and your research is complete crap, then there’s a good chance someone will call you on it.
Wansink, though, his story is different. Yes, he’s occasionally poked at the powers that be, but his research papers address major policy debates only obliquely. There’s no particular reason for anyone to oppose a claim that men eat differently when with men than with women, or that buffet pricing affects or does not affect how much people eat, or whatever.
Wansink’s work flies under the radar. Or, to mix metaphors, he’s in the Goldilocks position, with topics that are not important for anyone to care about disputing, but interesting and quirky enough to appeal to the editors at the New York Times, NPR, Freakonomics, Marginal Revolution, etc.
It’s similar with embodied cognition, power pose, himmicanes, ages ending in 9, and other PPNAS-style Gladwell bait. Nobody has much motivation to question these claims, so they can stay afloat indefinitely, generating entire literatures in peer-reviewed journals, only to collapse years or decades later when someone pops the bubble via a preregistered non-replication or a fatal statistical criticism.
We hear a lot about the self-correcting nature of science, but—at least until recently—there seems to have been a lot of published science that’s completely wrong, but which nobody bothered to check. Or, when people did check, no one seemed to care.
A couple weeks ago we had a new example, a paper out of Harvard called, “Caught Red-Minded: Evidence-Induced Denial of Mental Transgressions.” My reaction when reading this paper was somewhere between: (1) Huh? As recently as 2016, the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General was still publishing this sort of slop? and (2) Hmmm, the authors are pretty well known, so the paper must have some hidden virtues. But now I’m realizing that, yes, the paper may well have hidden virtues—that’s what “hidden” means, that maybe these virtues are there but I don’t see them—but, yes, serious scholars really can release low-quality research, when there’s no feedback mechanism to let them know there are problems.
OK, there are some feedback mechanisms. There are journal referees, there are outside critics like me or Uri Simonsohn who dispute forking path p-value evidence on statistical grounds, and there are endeavors such as the replication project that have revealed systemic problems in social psychology. But referee reports are hidden (you can respond to them by just submitting to a new journal), and the problem with peer review is the peers; and the other feedbacks are relatively new, and some established figures in psychology and other fields have had trouble adjusting.
Everything’s changing—look at Pizzagate, power pose, etc., where the news media are starting to wise up, and pretty soon it’ll just be NPR, PPNAS, and Ted standing in a very tiny circle, tweeting these studies over and over again to each other—but as this is happening, I think it’s useful to look back and consider how it is that certain bubbles have been kept afloat for so many years, how it is that the U.S. government gave millions of dollars in research grants to a guy who seems to have trouble counting pizza slices.