Department of Philosophy
Saint Louis University
Commentary on “The statistics wars and intellectual conflicts of interest” (Mayo editorial)
In her recent Editorial for Conservation Biology, Deborah Mayo argues that journal editors “should avoid taking sides” regarding “heated disagreements about statistical significance tests.” Particularly, they should not impose bans suggested by combatants in the “statistics wars” on statistical methods advocated by the opposing side, such as Wasserstein et al.’s (2019) proposed ban on the declaration of statistical significance and use of p value thresholds. Were journal editors to adopt such proposals, Mayo argues, they would be acting under a conflict of interest (COI) of a special kind: an “intellectual” conflict of interest.
Conflicts of interest are worrisome because of the potential for bias. Researchers will no doubt be all too familiar with the institutional/bureaucratic requirement of declaring financial interests. Whether such disclosures provide substantive protections against bias or simply satisfy a “CYA” requirement of administrators, the rationale is that assessment of research outcomes can incorporate information relevant to the question of whether the investigators have arrived at a conclusion that overstates (or even fabricates) the support for a claim, when the acceptance of that claim would financially benefit them. This in turn ought to reduce the temptation of investigators to engage in such inflation or fabrication of support. The idea obviously applies quite naturally to editorial decisions as well as research conclusions. Continue reading
Where do journal editors look to find someone to referee your manuscript (in the typical “double blind” review system in academic journals)? One obvious place to look is the reference list in your paper. After all, if you’ve cited them, they must know about the topic of your paper, putting them in a good position to write a useful review. The problem is that if your paper is on a topic of ardent disagreement, and you argue in favor of one side of the debates, then your reference list is likely to include those with actual or perceived conflicts of interest. After all, if someone has a strong standpoint on an issue of some controversy, and a strong interest in persuading others to accept their side, it creates an intellectual conflict of interest, if that person has power to uphold that view. Since your referee is in a position of significant power to do just that, it follows that they have a conflict of interest (COI). A lot of attention is paid to author’s conflicts of interest, but little into intellectual or ideological conflicts of interests of reviewers. At most, the concern is with the reviewer having special reasons to favor the author, usually thought to be indicated by having been a previous co-author. We’ve been talking about journal editors conflicts of interest as of late (e.g., with Mark Burgman’s presentation at the last Phil Stat Forum) and this brings to mind another one. Continue reading
The American Statistical Association has announced that it has decided to reverse course and share the recommendations developed by the ASA Task Force on Statistical Significance and Replicability in one of its official channels. The ASA Board created this group  in November 2019 “with a charge to develop thoughtful principles and practices that the ASA can endorse and share with scientists and journal editors.” (AMSTATNEWS 1 February 2020). Some members of the ASA Board felt that its earlier decision not to make these recommendations public, but instead to leave the group to publish its recommendations on its own, might give the appearance of a conflict of interest between the obligation of the ASA to represent the wide variety of methodologies used by its members in widely diverse fields, and the advocacy by some members who believe practitioners should stop using the term “statistical significance” and end the practice of using p-value thresholds in interpreting data [the Wasserstein et al. (2019) editorial]. I think that deciding to publicly share the new Task Force recommendations is very welcome, given especially that the Task Force was appointed to avoid just such an apparent conflict of interest. Past ASA President, Karen Kafadar noted: Continue reading