Book review: Fraud, bias, negligence and hype in the lab — a rogues’ gallery

Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth Stuart Ritchie Metropolitan (2020) [As a Bookshop.org affiliate, I earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. All proceeds support Environmental News Bits.]

If “you’ve heard of the idea that if you take a larger plate to the buffet, you’ll eat more than you otherwise would have”, writes psychologist Stuart Ritchie, then “you’ve indirectly heard of Professor Brian Wansink”. Wansink, a nutrition psychologist, spent two years as director of the US Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, and published many articles that formed the evidence base for the ‘Smarter Lunchrooms’ movement in US schools. The validity of his research has since been called into question, in what is now one of the most well known such cases in nutrition research. At least 18 of his papers have been retracted, 6 in a single day.

Fraud, bias, negligence and hype are the themes of Science Fictions. Some of the cases Ritchie presents, like Wansink’s, are intriguing and disturbing combinations of all four. His examples of questioned findings run from psychic precognition, psychological priming and the benefits of striking a ‘power pose’ to trachea transplants, the gut microbiome and autism-like characteristics in mice, and arsenic-based lifeforms. All the replication-failure and scientific-misconduct stories you’ve ever heard are here — along with more that you haven’t. Together, these crank up the tension between engaged scientific criticism and maintaining trust in science.

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