S. Senn

**Stephen Senn**

Head of Competence Center for Methodology and Statistics (CCMS)

Luxembourg Institute of Health

**The pathetic P-value* [3]**

This is the way the story is now often told. RA Fisher is the villain. Scientists were virtuously treading the Bayesian path, when along came Fisher and gave them P-values, which they gladly accepted, because they could get ‘significance’ so much more easily. Nearly a century of corrupt science followed but now there are signs that there is a willingness to return to the path of virtue and having abandoned this horrible Fisherian complication:

*We shall not cease from exploration*

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started …

*A condition of complete simplicity..*

*And all shall be well and*

All manner of thing shall be well

TS Eliot, Little Gidding

Consider, for example, distinguished scientist David Colquhoun citing the excellent scientific journalist Robert Matthews as follows

“There is an element of truth in the conclusion of a perspicacious journalist:

‘The plain fact is that 70 years ago Ronald Fisher gave scientists a mathematical machine for turning baloney into breakthroughs, and flukes into funding. It is time to pull the plug. ‘

Robert Matthews *Sunday Telegraph*, 13 September 1998.” [1]

However, this is not a plain fact but just plain wrong. Even if P-values were the guilty ‘mathematical machine’ they are portrayed to be, it is not RA Fisher’s fault. Putting the historical record right helps one to understand the issues better. As I shall argue, at the heart of this is not a disagreement between Bayesian and frequentist approaches but between two Bayesian approaches: it is a conflict to do with the choice of prior distributions[2].

Fisher did not persuade scientists to calculate P-values rather than Bayesian posterior probabilities; he persuaded them that the probabilities that they *were already calculating* *and interpreting as posterior probabilities* relied for this interpretation on a doubtful assumption. He proposed to replace this interpretation with one that did not rely on the assumption. Continue reading →