# The sausage of statistics being made

Nov 11 JDN 2458434

“Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”

Statistics are a bit like laws and sausages. There are a lot of things in statistical practice that don’t align with statistical theory. The most obvious examples are the fact that many results in statistics are asymptotic: they only strictly apply for infinitely large samples, and in any finite sample they will be some sort of approximation (we often don’t even know how good an approximation).

But the problem runs deeper than this: The whole idea of a p-value was originally supposed to be used to assess one single hypothesis that is the only one you test in your entire study.

That’s frankly a ludicrous expectation: Why would you write a whole paper just to test one parameter?

This is why I don’t actually think this so-called multiple comparisons problem is a problem with researchers doing too many hypothesis tests; I think it’s a problem with statisticians being fundamentally unreasonable about what statistics is useful for. We have to do multiple comparisons, so you should be telling us how to do it correctly.

Statisticians have this beautiful pure mathematics that generates all these lovely asymptotic results… and then they stop, as if they were done. But we aren’t dealing with infinite or even “sufficiently large” samples; we need to know what happens when your sample is 100, not when your sample is 10^29. We can’t assume that our variables are independently identically distributed; we don’t know their distribution, and we’re pretty sure they’re going to be somewhat dependent.

Even in an experimental context where we can randomly and independently assign some treatments, we can’t do that with lots of variables that are likely to matter, like age, gender, nationality, or field of study. And applied econometricians are in an even tighter bind; they often can’t randomize anything. They have to rely upon “instrumental variables” that they hope are “close enough to randomized” relative to whatever they want to study.

In practice what we tend to do is… fudge it. We use the formal statistical methods, and then we step back and apply a series of informal norms to see if the result actually makes sense to us. This is why almost no psychologists were actually convinced by Daryl Bem’s precognition experiments, despite his standard experimental methodology and perfect p < 0.05 results; he couldn’t pass any of the informal tests, particularly the most basic one of not violating any known fundamental laws of physics. We knew he had somehow cherry-picked the data, even before looking at it; nothing else was possible.

This is actually part of where the “hierarchy of sciences” notion is useful: One of the norms is that you’re not allowed to break the rules of the sciences above you, but you can break the rules of the sciences below you. So psychology has to obey physics, but physics doesn’t have to obey psychology. I think this is also part of why there’s so much enmity between economists and anthropologists; really we should be on the same level, cognizant of each other’s rules, but economists want to be above anthropologists so we can ignore culture, and anthropologists want to be above economists so they can ignore incentives.

Another informal norm is the “robustness check”, in which the researcher runs a dozen different regressions approaching the same basic question from different angles. “What if we control for this? What if we interact those two variables? What if we use a different instrument?” In terms of statistical theory, this doesn’t actually make a lot of sense; the probability distributions f(y|x) of y conditional on x and f(y|x, z) of y conditional on x and z are not the same thing, and wouldn’t in general be closely tied, depending on the distribution f(x|z) of x conditional on z. But in practice, most real-world phenomena are going to continue to show up even as you run a bunch of different regressions, and so we can be more confident that something is a real phenomenon insofar as that happens. If an effect drops out when you switch out a couple of control variables, it may have been a statistical artifact. But if it keeps appearing no matter what you do to try to make it go away, then it’s probably a real thing.

Because of the powerful career incentives toward publication and the strange obsession among journals with a p-value less than 0.05, another norm has emerged: Don’t actually trust p-values that are close to 0.05. The vast majority of the time, a p-value of 0.047 was the result of publication bias. Now if you see a p-value of 0.001, maybe then you can trust it—but you’re still relying on a lot of assumptions even then. I’ve seen some researchers argue that because of this, we should tighten our standards for publication to something like p < 0.01, but that’s missing the point; what we need to do is stop publishing based on p-values. If you tighten the threshold, you’re just going to get more rejected papers and then the few papers that do get published will now have even smaller p-values that are still utterly meaningless.

These informal norms protect us from the worst outcomes of bad research. But they are almost certainly not optimal. It’s all very vague and informal, and different researchers will often disagree vehemently over whether a given interpretation is valid. What we need are formal methods for solving these problems, so that we can have the objectivity and replicability that formal methods provide. Right now, our existing formal tools simply are not up to that task.

There are some things we may never be able to formalize: If we had a formal algorithm for coming up with good ideas, the AIs would already rule the world, and this would be either Terminator or The Culture depending on whether we designed the AIs correctly. But I think we should at least be able to formalize the basic question of “Is this statement likely to be true?” that is the fundamental motivation behind statistical hypothesis testing.

I think the answer is likely to be in a broad sense Bayesian, but Bayesians still have a lot of work left to do in order to give us really flexible, reliable statistical methods we can actually apply to the messy world of real data. In particular, tell us how to choose priors please! Prior selection is a fundamental make-or-break problem in Bayesian inference that has nonetheless been greatly neglected by most Bayesian statisticians. So, what do we do? We fall back on informal norms: Try maximum likelihood, which is like using a very flat prior. Try a normally-distributed prior. See if you can construct a prior from past data. If all those give the same thing, that’s a “robustness check” (see previous informal norm).

Informal norms are also inherently harder to teach and learn. I’ve seen a lot of other grad students flail wildly at statistics, not because they don’t know what a p-value means (though maybe that’s also sometimes true), but because they don’t really quite grok the informal underpinnings of good statistical inference. This can be very hard to explain to someone: They feel like they followed all the rules correctly, but you are saying their results are wrong, and now you can’t explain why.

In fact, some of the informal norms that are in wide use are clearly detrimental. In economics, norms have emerged that certain types of models are better simply because they are “more standard”, such as the dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models that can basically be fit to everything and have never actually usefully predicted anything. In fact, the best ones just predict what we already knew from Keynesian models. But without a formal norm for testing the validity of models, it’s been “DSGE or GTFO”. At present, it is considered “nonstandard” (read: “bad”) not to assume that your agents are either a single unitary “representative agent” or a continuum of infinitely-many agents—modeling the actual fact of finitely-many agents is just not done. Yet it’s hard for me to imagine any formal criterion that wouldn’t at least give you some points for correctly including the fact that there is more than one but less than infinity people in the world (obviously your model could still be bad in other ways).

I don’t know what these new statistical methods would look like. Maybe it’s as simple as formally justifying some of the norms we already use; maybe it’s as complicated as taking a fundamentally new approach to statistical inference. But we have to start somewhere.

# The replication crisis, and the future of science

Aug 27, JDN 2457628 [Sat]

After settling in a little bit in Irvine, I’m now ready to resume blogging, but for now it will be on a reduced schedule. I’ll release a new post every Saturday, at least for the time being.

Today’s post was chosen by Patreon vote, though only one person voted (this whole Patreon voting thing has not been as successful as I’d hoped). It’s about something we scientists really don’t like to talk about, but definitely need to: We are in the middle of a major crisis of scientific replication.

Whenever large studies are conducted attempting to replicate published scientific results, their ability to do so is almost always dismal.

Psychology is the one everyone likes to pick on, because their record is particularly bad. Only 39% of studies were really replicated with the published effect size, though a further 36% were at least qualitatively but not quantitatively similar. Yet economics has its own replication problem, and even medical research is not immune to replication failure.

It’s important not to overstate the crisis; the majority of scientific studies do at least qualitatively replicate. We are doing better than flipping a coin, which is better than one can say of financial forecasters.
There are three kinds of replication, and only one of them should be expected to give near-100% results. That kind is reanalysiswhen you take the same data and use the same methods, you absolutely should get the exact same results. I favor making reanalysis a routine requirement of publication; if we can’t get your results by applying your statistical methods to your data, then your paper needs revision before we can entrust it to publication. A number of papers have failed on reanalysis, which is absurd and embarrassing; the worst offender was probably Rogart-Reinhoff, which was used in public policy decisions around the world despite having spreadsheet errors.

The second kind is direct replication—when you do the exact same experiment again and see if you get the same result within error bounds. This kind of replication should work something like 90% of the time, but in fact works more like 60% of the time.

The third kind is conceptual replication—when you do a similar experiment designed to test the same phenomenon from a different perspective. This kind of replication should work something like 60% of the time, but actually only works about 20% of the time.

Economists are well equipped to understand and solve this crisis, because it’s not actually about science. It’s about incentives. I facepalm every time I see another article by an aggrieved statistician about the “misunderstanding” of p-values; no, scientist aren’t misunderstanding anything. They know damn well how p-values are supposed to work. So why do they keep using them wrong? Because their jobs depend on doing so.

The first key point to understand here is “publish or perish”; academics in an increasingly competitive system are required to publish their research in order to get tenure, and frequently required to get tenure in order to keep their jobs at all. (Or they could become adjuncts, who are paid one-fifth as much.)

The second is the fundamentally defective way our research journals are run (as I have discussed in a previous post). As private for-profit corporations whose primary interest is in raising more revenue, our research journals aren’t trying to publish what will genuinely advance scientific knowledge. They are trying to publish what will draw attention to themselves. It’s a similar flaw to what has arisen in our news media; they aren’t trying to convey the truth, they are trying to get ratings to draw advertisers. This is how you get hours of meaningless fluff about a missing airliner and then a single chyron scroll about a war in Congo or a flood in Indonesia. Research journals haven’t fallen quite so far because they have reputations to uphold in order to attract scientists to read them and publish in them; but still, their fundamental goal is and has always been to raise attention in order to raise revenue.

The best way to do that is to publish things that are interesting. But if a scientific finding is interesting, that means it is surprising. It has to be unexpected or unusual in some way. And above all, it has to be positive; you have to have actually found an effect. Except in very rare circumstances, the null result is never considered interesting. This adds up to making journals publish what is improbable.

In particular, it creates a perfect storm for the abuse of p-values. A p-value, roughly speaking, is the probability you would get the observed result if there were no effect at all—for instance, the probability that you’d observe this wage gap between men and women in your sample if in the real world men and women were paid the exact same wages. The standard heuristic is a p-value of 0.05; indeed, it has become so enshrined that it is almost an explicit condition of publication now. Your result must be less than 5% likely to happen if there is no real difference. But if you will only publish results that show a p-value of 0.05, then the papers that get published and read will only be the ones that found such p-values—which renders the p-values meaningless.

It was never particularly meaningful anyway; as we Bayesians have been trying to explain since time immemorial, it matters how likely your hypothesis was in the first place. For something like wage gaps where we’re reasonably sure, but maybe could be wrong, the p-value is not too unreasonable. But if the theory is almost certainly true (“does gravity fall off as the inverse square of distance?”), even a high p-value like 0.35 is still supportive, while if the theory is almost certainly false (“are human beings capable of precognition?”—actual study), even a tiny p-value like 0.001 is still basically irrelevant. We really should be using much more sophisticated inference techniques, but those are harder to do, and don’t provide the nice simple threshold of “Is it below 0.05?”

But okay, p-values can be useful in many cases—if they are used correctly and you see all the results. If you have effect X with p-values 0.03, 0.07, 0.01, 0.06, and 0.09, effect X is probably a real thing. If you have effect Y with p-values 0.04, 0.02, 0.29, 0.35, and 0.74, effect Y is probably not a real thing. But I’ve just set it up so that these would be published exactly the same. They each have two published papers with “statistically significant” results. The other papers never get published and therefore never get seen, so we throw away vital information. This is called the file drawer problem.

Researchers often have a lot of flexibility in designing their experiments. If their only goal were to find truth, they would use this flexibility to test a variety of scenarios and publish all the results, so they can be compared holistically. But that isn’t their only goal; they also care about keeping their jobs so they can pay rent and feed their families. And under our current system, the only way to ensure that you can do that is by publishing things, which basically means only including the parts that showed up as statistically significant—otherwise, journals aren’t interested. And so we get huge numbers of papers published that tell us basically nothing, because we set up such strong incentives for researchers to give misleading results.

The saddest part is that this could be easily fixed.

First, reduce the incentives to publish by finding other ways to evaluate the skill of academics—like teaching for goodness’ sake. Working papers are another good approach. Journals already get far more submissions than they know what to do with, and most of these papers will never be read by more than a handful of people. We don’t need more published findings, we need better published findings—so stop incentivizing mere publication and start finding ways to incentivize research quality.

Second, eliminate private for-profit research journals. Science should be done by government agencies and nonprofits, not for-profit corporations. (And yes, I would apply this to pharmaceutical companies as well, which should really be pharmaceutical manufacturers who make cheap drugs based off of academic research and carry small profit margins.) Why? Again, it’s all about incentives. Corporations have no reason to want to find truth and every reason to want to tilt it in their favor.

Third, increase the number of tenured faculty positions. Instead of building so many new grand edifices to please your plutocratic donors, use your (skyrocketing) tuition money to hire more professors so that you can teach more students better. You can find even more funds if you cut the salaries of your administrators and football coaches. Come on, universities; you are the one industry in the world where labor demand and labor supply are the same people a few years later. You have no excuse for not having the smoothest market clearing in the world. You should never have gluts or shortages.

Fourth, require pre-registration of research studies (as some branches of medicine already do). If the study is sound, an optimal rational agent shouldn’t care in the slightest whether it had a positive or negative result, and if our ape brains won’t let us think that way, we need to establish institutions to force it to happen. They shouldn’t even see the effect size and p-value before they make the decision to publish it; all they should care about is that the experiment makes sense and the proper procedure was conducted.
If we did all that, the replication crisis could be almost completely resolved, as the incentives would be realigned to more closely match the genuine search for truth.

Alas, I don’t see universities or governments or research journals having the political will to actually make such changes, which is very sad indeed.