The Statistics Debate (NISS) in Transcript Form

I constructed, together with Jean Miller, a transcript from the October 15 Statistics Debate (with me, J. Berger and D. Trafimow and moderator D. Jeske), sponsored by NISS. It’s so much easier to access the material this way rather than listening to it on the video. Using this link, you can see the words and hear the video at the same time, as well as pause and jump around. Below, I’ve pasted our responses to Question #1. Have fun and please share your comments.

Deborah Mayo  03:46

Thank you so much. And thank you for inviting me, I’m very pleased to be here. Yes, I say we should continue to use p values and statistical significance tests. Uses of p values are really just a piece in a rich set of tools intended to assess and control the probabilities of misleading interpretations of data, i.e., error probabilities. They’re the first line of defense against being fooled by randomness as Yoav Benjamini puts it. If even larger, or more extreme effects than you observed are frequently brought about by chance variability alone, i.e., p value not small, clearly you don’t have evidence of incompatibility with the mere chance hypothesis. It’s very straightforward reasoning. Even those who criticize p values you’ll notice will employ them, at least if they care to check their assumptions of their models. And this includes well known Bayesian such as George Box, Andrew Gelman, and Jim Berger. Critics of p values often allege it’s too easy to obtain small p values. But notice the whole replication crisis is about how difficult it is to get small p values with preregistered hypotheses. This shows the problem isn’t p values, but those selection effects and data dredging. However, the same data drenched hypothesis can occur in other methods, likelihood ratios, Bayes factors, Bayesian updating, except that now we lose the direct grounds to criticize inferences for flouting error statistical control. The introduction of prior probabilities, which may also be data dependent, offers further researcher flexibility. Those who reject p values are saying we should reject the method because it can be used badly. And that’s a bad argument. We should reject misuses of p values. But there’s a danger of blindly substituting alternative tools that throw out the error control baby with the bad statistics bathwater.

Dan Jeske  05:58

Thank you, Deborah, Jim, would you like to comment on Deborah’s remarks and offer your own?

Jim Berger  06:06

Okay, yes. Well, I certainly agree with much of what Deborah said, after all, a p value is simply a statistic. And it’s an interesting statistic that does have many legitimate uses, when properly calibrated. And Deborah mentioned one such case is model checking where Bayesians freely use some version of p values for model checking. You know, on the other hand, that one interprets this question, should they continue to be used in the same way that they’re used today? Then my, my answer would be somewhat different. I think p values are commonly misinterpreted today, especially when when they’re used to test a sharp null hypothesis. For instance, of a p value of .05, is commonly interpreted as by many is indicating the evidence is 20 to one in favor of the alternative hypothesis. And that just that just isn’t true. You can show for instance, that if I’m testing with a normal mean of zero versus nonzero, the odds of the alternative hypothesis to the null hypothesis can at most be seven to one. And that’s just a probabilistic fact, doesn’t involve priors or anything. It just is, is a is an answer covering all probability. And so that 20 to one cannot be if it’s, if it’s, if a p value of .05 is interpreted as 20 to one, it’s just, it’s just being interpreted wrongly, and the wrong conclusions are being reached. I’m reminded of an interesting paper that was published some time ago now, which was reporting on a survey that was designed to determine whether clinical practitioners understood what a p value was. The results of the survey were published and were not surprising. Most clinical practitioners interpreted the p value as something like a p value of .05 as something like 20 to one odds against the null hypothesis, which again, is incorrect. The fascinating aspect of the paper is that the authors also got it wrong. Deborah pointed out that the p value is the probability under the null hypothesis of the data or something more extreme. The author’s stated that the correct answer was the p value is the probability of the data under the null hypothesis, they forgot the more extreme. So, I love this article, because the scientists who set out to show that their colleagues did not understand the meaning of p values themselves did not understand the meaning of p values. 

Dan Jeske  08:42


David Trafimow  08:44

Okay. Yeah, Um, like Deborah and Jim, I’m delighted to be here. Thanks for the invitation. Um and I partly agree with what both Deborah and Jim said, um, it’s certainly true that people misuse p values. So, I agree with that. However, I think p values are more problematic than the other speakers have mentioned. And here’s here’s the problem for me. We keep talking about p values relative to hypotheses, but that’s not really true. P values are relative to hypotheses plus additional assumptions. So, if we call, if we use the term model to describe the null hypothesis, plus additional assumptions, then p values are based on models, not on hypotheses, or only partly on hypotheses. Now, here’s the thing. What are these other assumptions? An example would be random selection from the population, an assumption that is not true in any one of the thousands of papers I’ve read in psychology. And there are other assumptions, a lack of systematic error, linearity, and then we can go on and on, people have even published taxonomies of the assumptions because there are so many of them. See, it’s tantamount to impossible that the model is correct, which means that the model is wrong. And so, what you’re in essence doing then, is you’re using the p value to index evidence against a model that is already known to be wrong. And even the part about indexing evidence is questionable, but I’ll go with it for the moment. But the point is the model was wrong. And so, there’s no point in indexing evidence against it. So given that, I don’t really see that there’s any use for them. There’s, p values don’t tell you how close the model is to being right. P values don’t tell you how valuable the model is. P values pretty much don’t tell you anything that researchers might want to know, unless you misuse them. Anytime you draw a conclusion from a p value, you are guilty of misuse. So, I think the misuse problem is much more subtle than is perhaps obvious at firsthand. So, that’s really all I have to say at the moment.

Dan Jeske  11:28

Thank you. Jim, would you like to follow up?

Jim Berger  11:32

Yes,  so, so,  I certainly agree that that assumptions are often made that are wrong. I won’t say that that’s always the case. I mean, I know many scientific disciplines where I think they do a pretty good job, and work with high energy physicists, and they do a pretty good job of checking their assumptions. Excellent job. And they use p values. It’s something to watch out for. But any statistical analysis, you know, can can run into this problem. If the assumptions are wrong, it’s, it’s going to be wrong.

Dan Jeske  12:09


Deborah Mayo  12:11

Okay. Well, Jim thinks that we should evaluate the p value by looking at the Bayes factor when he does, and he finds that they’re exaggerating, but we really shouldn’t expect agreement on numbers from methods that are evaluating different things. This is like supposing that if we switch from a height to a weight standard, that if we use six feet with the height, we should now require six stone, to use an example from Stephen Senn. On David, I think he’s wrong about the worrying assumptions with using the p value since they have the least assumptions of any other method, which is why people and why even Bayesians will say we need to apply them when we need to test our assumptions. And it’s something that we can do, especially with randomized controlled trials, to get the assumptions to work. The idea that we have to misinterpret p values to have them be relevant, only rests on supposing that we need something other than what the p value provides.

Dan Jeske  13:19

David, would you like to give some final thoughts on this question?

David Trafimow  13:23

Sure. As it is, as far as Jim’s point, and Deborah’s point that we can do things to make the assumptions less wrong. The problem is the model is wrong or it isn’t wrong. Now if the model is close, that doesn’t justify the p value because the p value doesn’t give the closeness of the model. And that’s the, that’s the problem. We’re not we’re not using, for example, a sample mean, to estimate a population mean, in which case, yeah, you wouldn’t expect the sample mean to be exactly right. If it’s close, it’s still useful. The problem is that p values don’t tell you p values aren’t being used to estimate anything. So, if you’re not estimating anything, then you’re stuck with either correct or incorrect, and the answer is always incorrect that, you know, this is especially true in psychology, but I suspect it might even be true in physics. I’m not the physicist that Jim is. So, I can’t say that for sure.

Dan Jeske  14:35

Jim, would you like to offer Final Thoughts?

Jim Berger  14:37

Let me comment on Deborah’s comment about Bayes factors are just a different scale of measurement. My my point was that it seems like people invariably think of p values as something like odds or probability of the null hypothesis, if that’s the way they’re thinking, because that’s the way their minds reason. I believe we should provide them with odds. And so, I try to convert p values into odds or Bayes factors, because I think that’s much more readily understandable by people.

Dan Jeske  15:11

Deborah, you have the final word on this question.

Deborah Mayo  15:13

I do think that we need a proper philosophy of statistics to interpret p values. But I think also that what’s missing in the reject p values movement is a major reason for calling in statistics in science is to give us tools to inquire whether an observed phenomena can be a real effect, or just noise in the data and the P values have intrinsic properties for this task, if used properly, other methods don’t, and to reject them is to jeopardize this important role. As Fisher emphasizes, we need randomized control trials precisely to ensure the validity of statistical significance tests, to reject them because they don’t give us posterior probabilities is illicit. In fact, I think that those claims that we want such posteriors need to show for any way we can actually get them, why. 

You can watch the debate at the NISS website or in this blog post.

You can find the complete audio transcript at this LINK:
[There is a play button at the bottom of the page that allows you to start and stop the recording. You can move about in the transcript/recording by using the pause button and moving the cursor to another place in the dialog and then clicking the play button to hear the recording from that point. (The recording is synced to the cursor.)]

Categories: D. Jeske, D. Trafimow, J. Berger, NISS, statistics debate | 1 Comment

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One thought on “The Statistics Debate (NISS) in Transcript Form

  1. Stan Young

    Deborah:I very much thank you for getting a transcript of the p-value panel discussion. As you note, read vs hear is important. I’m tied up with voting questions. I will get back to the p-value wars soon.

    Stan and Pat Young 919 782 2759

I welcome constructive comments that are of relevance to the post and the discussion, and discourage detours into irrelevant topics, however interesting, or unconstructive declarations that "you (or they) are just all wrong". If you want to correct or remove a comment, send me an e-mail. If readers have already replied to the comment, you may be asked to replace it to retain comprehension.

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