Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The statistical significance of interactions

Nature Neuroscience recently pointed out a statistical error that has occurred over and over in science journals. Ben Goldacre explains the error in a little detail, and gives his cynical interpretation. Of course, I’ll apply Hanlon’s razor to the situation (unlike Ben), but I do want to explain the impact of these errors.

It’s easy to forget when you’re working with numbers that you are trying to explain what’s going on in the world. In biostatistics, you try to explain what’s going on in the human body. If you’re studying drugs, statistical errors affect people’s lives.

Where these studies are published is also important. Nature Neuroscience is a widely read journal, and a large number of articles in this publication commit the error. I wonder how many articles in therapeutic area journals make this mistake. These are the journals that affect day to day medical practice, and, if the Nature Neuroscience error rate holds, this is disturbing indeed.

Honestly, when I read these linked articles, I was dismayed but not surprised. We statisticians often give confusing advice on how to test for differences and probably overplay the meaning of statistically significant.

We statisticians have to assume the leadership position here in the design, analysis, and interpretation of statistical analysis.