When the Research Is Retracted: Whom Can We Trust?

Social psychologist Brian Wasnick has had his work referred to by Nobel economist Richard Thaler as “masterpieces.” However, social psychology has had its reputation tattered a bit. In 2015, the Center for Open Science (COS), located in Charlottesville, Virginia, began its Reproducibility Project, and psychology was its first subject area. COS attempted to replicate 100 past studies. A team of 270 researchers picked a project to replicate. Sadly, the scientists could only replicate the result in 39 of the 100 studies. For the other 69, the scientists found they could not get to statistical significance. Of the 57 social psychology studies, only 25% could be replicated, which was the worst field.

Mr. Wasnick published a study that concluded that if you put an Elmo sticker on an apple that the kids will choose the apple over the cookie. The results were published in Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, but were retracted when JAMA received a letter from a reader, Nick Brown, that pointed out inconsistencies between the methodology and the data. The editor retracted the article. Mr. Wasnick responded that the data were indeed incorrect, but the mistake was inadvertent. Mr. Brown then responded:

Having read the cover letter that accompanies the retraction, my reaction would be to question just how chaotic a lab has to be to “inadvertently” submit an incorrect report of the study design and sample size to a journal with an impact factor of over 10. I also wonder how a misleading figure “inadvertently” came to replace a considerably less misleading one that was apparently in a draft of the article less than three months before it was published, as detailed in my blog post…

Mr. Brown also wondered how chaotic a lab has to be that it sends out the wrong data for publication.

The retraction is the third that Mr. Wasnick had made. There is a great deal of federal funding available for research into making kids eat what’s good for them. Slap a few Elmo stickers on food, claim you have a solution for healthy kid choices, and the funding will keep coming. The integrity of the data is not the only issue here. The integrity of researchers suffers when these highly visible errors appear.

The Barometer wonders how many “Nudges” Richard Thaler got governments to adopt that were based on faulty Wasnick and other social psychology studies. Those who believe the research and rely on it in their actions and policies are like the rubes who purchased miracle cures from the traveling-wagon-salemen. They were making stuff up too. The times changes but the strategies of those who scam never do.

About mmjdiary

Professor Marianne Jennings is an emeritus professor of legal and ethical studies from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, retiring in 2011 after 35 years of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in ethics and the legal environment of business. During her tenure at ASU, she served as director of the Joan and David Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics from 1995-1999. In 2006, she was appointed faculty director for the W.P. Carey Executive MBA Program. She has done consulting work for businesses and professional groups including AICPA, Boeing, Dial Corporation, Edward Jones, Mattel, Motorola, CFA Institute, Southern California Edison, the Institute of Internal Auditors, AIMR, DuPont, AES, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Motorola, Hy-Vee Foods, IBM, Bell Helicopter, Amgen, Raytheon, and VIAD.

The sixth edition of her textbook, Case Studies in Business Ethics, was published in February 2011. The ninth edition of her textbook, Business: lts Legal, Ethical and Global Environment was published in January 2011. The 23rd edition of her book, Business Law: Principles and Cases, will be published in January 2013. The tenth edition of her book, Real Estate Law, will also be published in January 2013. Her book, A Business Tale: A Story of Ethics, Choices, Success, and a Very Large Rabbit, a fable about business ethics, was chosen by Library Journal in 2004 as its business book of the year. A Business Tale was also a finalist for two other literary awards for 2004. In 2000 her book on corporate governance was published by the New York Times MBA Pocket Series. Her book on long-term success, Building a Business Through Good Times and Bad: Lessons from Fifteen Companies, Each With a Century of Dividends, was published in October 2002 and has been used by Booz, Allen, Hamilton for its work on business longevity. Her latest book, The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse was published by St. Martin’s Press in July 2006 and has been a finalist for two book awards.

Her weekly columns are syndicated around the country, and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Reader’s Digest. A collection of her essays, Nobody Fixes Real Carrot Sticks Anymore, first published in 1994 is still being published. She has been a commentator on business issues on All Things Considered for National Public Radio.

She has served on four boards of directors, including Arizona Public Service (1987-2000), Zealous Capital Corporation, and the Center for Children with Chronic Illness and Disability at the University of Minnesota. She was appointed to the board of advisors for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators in 2004 and served on the board of trustees for Think Arizona, a public policy think tank. She has appeared on CNBC, CBS This Morning, the Today Show, and CBS Evening News.

In 2010 she was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Business Ethics by Trust Across America. Her books have been translated into four different languages. She received the British Emerald award for authoring one of their top 50 articles in management publications, chosen from over 15,000 articles.

Personal: Married since 1976 to Terry H. Jennings, Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Deputy County Attorney; five children: Sarah, Sam, and John, and the late Claire and Hannah Jennings.

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