“I work on Multidimensional Scaling for more than 40 years, and the longer I work on it, the more I realise how much of it I don’t underst

The ASA controversy on P-values as an illustration of the difficulty of statistics

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2022-05-16 04:00:07

“I work on Multidimensional Scaling for more than 40 years, and the longer I work on it, the more I realise how much of it I don’t understand. This presentation is about my current state of not understanding.” (John Gower, world leading expert on Multidimensional Scaling, on a conference in 2009)

“The lecturer contradicts herself.” (Student feedback to an ex-colleague for teaching methods and then teaching what problems they have)

Statistical tests and P-values are widely used and widely misused. In 2016, the ASA issued a statement on significance and P-values with the intention to curb misuse while acknowledging their proper definition and potential use. In my view the statement did a rather good job saying things that are worthwhile saying while trying to be acceptable to those who are generally critical on P-values as well as those who tend to defend their use. As was predictable, the statement did not settle the issue. A “2019 editorial” by some of the authors of the original statement (recommending “to abandon statistical significance”) and a 2021 ASA task force statement, much more positive on P-values, followed, showing the level of disagreement in the profession.

Statistics is hard. Well-trained, experienced and knowledgeable statisticians disagree about standard methods. Statistics is based on probability modelling, and probability modelling in data analysis is essentially about whether and how often things that did not happen could have happened, which can never be verified. The very meaning of probability, and by extension of every probability statement, is controversial.

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