Credibility crisis in an era of clicks and shares

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Never go grocery shopping hungry; you are certain to buy more than you need and make poor impulse decision. Also, if you want to eat less, eat from a smaller plate. Your food will look bigger and psychologically you will be more satisfied.

I have repeated these “facts” so many times I never stopped to consider that the science behind these claims could be wrong. Even worse, the science could have been manipulated and forged. I am not saying it was, but it appears we have to consider that fact.

As The Atlantic reported this week, prolific Cornell scientist Brian Wansink has retired as a professor after having a total of 13 publications retracted given serious questions about his scientific integrity and honesty. It’s easy to vilify someone who forges or manipulates data to support “Big Pharma,” “Big Food” or “Big Sugar.” But this is the opposite.

Professor Wansink has published dozens of studies showing how food companies psychologically manipulate us into buying more of their products, eating more than we need, and thus fueling the obesity epidemic. He is the Robin Hood of nutritional researchers. Yet he is also a cautionary tale of how today’s society values “clicks” and views more than it values scientific integrity.

His downfall began when he was overheard encouraging a graduate student to get creative with her data in order to come up with a more interesting conclusion. Later he admitted in a blog that when one hypothesis failed, he would search through the data to find a hypothesis that worked. This goes against a main research principal that you identify your hypothesis ahead of time to ensure scientific validity.

That eventually led to a detailed evaluation of his research by Cornell faculty that eventually found “misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship.”

This comes at a time when social media has become the king of information. The pressure to get clicks, likes and shares has created a “credibility crisis.” The scary question is how prevalent are these practices in the scientific community? If all research underwent the same scrutiny as Professor Wansink’s, how many studies would raise red flags? I am concerned that the answer would be quite a few.

Where does this leave us? How do we know whom we can trust and what we can’t?

I wish I had an easy answer. Instead, we have to continually seek out trusted sources of information. We need to seek those whose primary focus is not to get noticed or sell us something. Or those who don’t have a laundry list of industry funding sources and conflicts of interest.

Instead, we need to seek those whose aim is to educate us, engage with us, and help us learn and grow. At Diet Doctor, we strive to remain an objective source of information you can trust, now and in the future.

Thanks for reading,
Bret Scher, MD FACC

The Atlantic: A credibility crisis in food science

The New York Times: More evidence that nutrition studies don’t always add up


Should journalists avoid reporting on most food studies?

Nina Teicholz in WSJ: “Carbs, good for you? Fat chance!”

Dietary guidelines

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