The future of p-values

Another attack on p-values. This time by Regina Nuzzo in prestigious science journal Nature. Nuzzo advances the usual criticisms clearly and trenchantly. I hope that this will start to make people think hard about using probability to make decisions.

However, for me, the analysis still does not go deep enough. US baseball commentator Yogi Berra is reputed once to have observed that:

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.

The fact that scientists work with confidence intervals, whereas if society is interested in such things it is interested in prediction intervals, belies the proper recognition of the future in much scientific writing.

The principal reason for doing statistics is to improve the reliability of predictions and forecasts. But the foundational question is whether the past is even representative of the future. Unless the past is representative of the future then it is of no assistance in forecasting. Many statisticians have emphasised the important property that any process must display to allow even tentative predictions about its future behaviour. Johnson and de Finetti called the property exchangeability, Shewhart and Deming called it statistical control, Don Wheeler coined the more suggestive term stable and predictable.

Shewhart once observed:

Both pure and applied science have gradually pushed further and further the requirements for accuracy and precision. However, applied science, particularly in the mass production of interchangeable parts, is even more exacting than pure science in certain matters of accuracy and precision.

Perhaps its unsurprising then that the concept is more widely relied upon in business than in scientific writing. All the same, statistical analysis begins and ends with considerations of stability. An analysis in which p-values do not assist.

At the head of this page is a tab labelled “Rearview” where I have surveyed the matter more widely. I would like to think of this as supplementary to Nuzzo’s views.


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