The Hinterlands of Science

The childhood obesity field does not generate many scandals, but when one occurs, somehow it seems worse than the disreputable doings in other areas of research. In the previous post, we learned that Smarter Lunchrooms co-inventor Brian Wansink has been called out for, among other things, reverse-engineering data from a “failed study which had null results” into a half-baked research paper. Wansink has also been criticized for possessing a “cavalier attitude toward theory and apparent willingness to hack statistics into something publishable.”

Those phrases came from Elizabeth Nolan Brown, who expressed great concern over the fact that by the time some 29,000 public schools in America had adopted the Smarter Lunchrooms game plan, only one outside study of it had appeared in the literature. She also found it upsetting that Wansink had agreed to review the data from what some critics regarded as questionable studies, then deleted his blog post where that offer was on record.

Another of Brown’s points is that although the method is touted as low-cost, “we are shelling out all sorts of money and government resources to incentivize activity with no measurable benefit (all while creating new administrative positions and layers of bureaucracy to oversee these efforts).”

Other critics of Smarter Lunchrooms

There is a general feeling, among Smarter Lunchrooms dissidents, that settling on that paradigm has stalled or prevented research into other modalities that might more effectively persuade children to choose nutritious foods. In particular, universal acceptance of Smarter Lunchrooms might not be the optimal path toward reducing obesity in children.

In the larger arena of psychological research, naysayers have been picking away at all kinds of studies whose conclusions were once considered acceptable. Psychology is, after all, a “soft” science, and its practitioners, and especially its innovators, must undergo very strict scrutiny from the “hard” science scholars. They want research that can be verified and reproduced. They especially want numbers to add up, which is unfortunately not always the case in papers published by Wansink and various collaborators.

One special critic

Here is where the story gets really interesting. One of the earliest skeptics was not an accredited scientist, but a citizen blogger (and mother of school-age children), Bettina Elias Siegel. Her online activity has demonstrated the power that “ordinary” parents and caring members of the public can wield.

As far back as 2010, Siegel’s blog, The Lunch Tray, mentioned Smarter Lunchrooms in a neutral, reportorial context. But then, she got to thinking about it, and in the following year, emailed a question to Brian Wansink. The “nudges” his team had invented may have inspired kids to put more fruits and vegetable on their plates — and that sounded intriguing — but were those healthier items actually consumed?

The result was a phone interview, from which these replies are quoted:

BW: In some lunch room studies we did also do plate waste studies, but looking at aggregate trash isn’t really instructive since, for example, we don’t know how many people took all those green beans we find in the trash can. So instead we’ve also done some individual plate waste studies, but [for practical reasons] we do it on only a sub-sample of the population.

Siegel said that she had personally observed elementary school children who voluntarily chose fruits and vegetables in the lunch line, only to ignore and discard them.

BW: Oh, well elementary kids are a different animal. They don’t have any frontal lobe. They just randomly do things and certainly there’s no self-reflection of attribution there. That kicks in big time in junior high and high school and then we see huge effects. It’s so much more rich then because older kids are thinking, so then you can use the thinking in your favor. In elementary school there are certain things that can be done, but a lot of them won’t work.

Wansink mentioned that he himself had three children, all under five years old, and that his methods did help at home.

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Junk Science Behind ‘Smarter Lunchrooms’,” Reason.com, 08/29/17
Source: “Interview with Dr. Brian Wansink, Master of Lunchroom Trickery,” TheLunchTray.com, 03/31/11
Image by Bettina Elias Siegel

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Presentations

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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