ONE YEAR AGO, the NYT “Science Times” (9/29/14) published Fay Flam’s article, first blogged here.
Congratulations to Faye Flam for finally getting her article published at the Science Times at the New York Times, “The odds, continually updated” after months of reworking and editing, interviewing and reinterviewing. I’m grateful that one remark from me remained. Seriously I am. A few comments: The Monty Hall example is simple probability not statistics, and finding that fisherman who floated on his boots at best used likelihoods. I might note, too, that critiquing that ultra-silly example about ovulation and voting–a study so bad they actually had to pull it at CNN due to reader complaints[i]–scarcely required more than noticing the researchers didn’t even know the women were ovulating[ii]. Experimental design is an old area of statistics developed by frequentists; on the other hand, these ovulation researchers really believe their theory (and can point to a huge literature)….. Anyway, I should stop kvetching and thank Faye and the NYT for doing the article at all[iii]. Here are some excerpts:
…….When people think of statistics, they may imagine lists of numbers — batting averages or life-insurance tables. But the current debate is about how scientists turn data into knowledge, evidence and predictions. Concern has been growing in recent years that some fields are not doing a very good job at this sort of inference. In 2012, for example, a team at the biotech company Amgen announced that they’d analyzed 53 cancer studies and found it could not replicate 47 of them.
Similar follow-up analyses have cast doubt on so many findings in fields such as neuroscience and social science that researchers talk about a “replication crisis”
Some statisticians and scientists are optimistic that Bayesian methods can improve the reliability of research by allowing scientists to crosscheck work done with the more traditional or “classical” approach, known as frequentist statistics. The two methods approach the same problems from different angles.
Looking at Other Factors
Take, for instance, a study concluding that single women who were ovulating were 20 percent more likely to vote for President Obama in 2012 than those who were not. (In married women, the effect was reversed.)
Dr. Gelman re-evaluated the study using Bayesian statistics. That allowed him look at probability not simply as a matter of results and sample sizes, but in the light of other information that could affect those results.
He factored in data showing that people rarely change their voting preference over an election cycle, let alone a menstrual cycle. When he did, the study’s statistical significance evaporated. (The paper’s lead author, Kristina M. Durante of the University of Texas, San Antonio, said she stood by the finding.)
Dr. Gelman said the results would not have been considered statistically significant had the researchers used the frequentist method properly. He suggests using Bayesian calculations not necessarily to replace classical statistics but to flag spurious results.
Others say that in confronting the so-called replication crisis, the best cure for misleading findings is not Bayesian statistics, but good frequentist ones. It was frequentist statistics that allowed people to uncover all the problems with irreproducible research in the first place, said Deborah Mayo, a philosopher of science at Virginia Tech. The technique was developed to distinguish real effects from chance, and to prevent scientists from fooling themselves.
Uri Simonsohn, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees. Several years ago, he published a paper that exposed common statistical shenanigans in his field — logical leaps, unjustified conclusions, and various forms of unconscious and conscious cheating.
He said he had looked into Bayesian statistics and concluded that if people misused or misunderstood one system, they would do just as badly with the other. Bayesian statistics, in short, can’t save us from bad science. …
You can read Faye’s article here:“The odds, continually updated“.
[i]“Last week CNN pulled a story about a study purporting to demonstrate a link between a woman’s ovulation and how she votes, explaining that it failed to meet the cable network’s editorial standards. The story was savaged online as ‘silly,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘sexist,’ and ‘offensive.’ Others were less nice.”
[ii] I used it here as an illustration of an example that fell below my “limbo stick” cut-off of being worth criticizing. Doing so tends to lead to what I call the Dale Carnegie Fallacy.
[iii] Faye was really exceptional in her attempts to understand the ideas, and to avoid biasing the story too much more than was necessary. I look forward to more from Flam at her new gig.