Shravan’s comments on “Valen in Le Monde” [guest post]

[Those are comments sent yesterday by Shravan Vasishth in connection with my post. Since they are rather lengthy, I made them into a post. Shravan is also the author of The foundations of Statistics and we got in touch through my review of the book . I may address some of his points later, but, for now, I find the perspective of a psycholinguist quite interesting to hear.]

Christian, Is the problem for you that the p-value, however low, is only going to tell you the probability of your data (roughly speaking) assuming the null is true, it’s not going to tell you anything about the probability of the alternative hypothesis, which is the real hypothesis of interest.

However, limiting the discussion to (Bayesian) hierarchical models (linear mixed models), which is the type of model people often fit in repeated measures studies in psychology (or at least in psycholinguistics), as long as the problem is about figuring out P(θ>0) or P(θ>0), the decision (to act as if θ>0) is going to be the same regardless of whether one uses p-values or a fully Bayesian approach. This is because the likelihood is going to dominate in the Bayesian model.

Andrew has objected to this line of reasoning by saying that making a decision like θ>0 is not a reasonable one in the first place. That is true in some cases, where the result of one experiment never replicates because of study effects or whatever. But there are a lot of effects which are robust and replicable, and where it makes sense to ask these types of questions.

One central issue for me is: in situations like these, using a low p-value to make such a decision is going to yield pretty similar outcomes compared to doing inference using the posterior distribution. The machinery needed to do a fully Bayesian analysis is very intimidating; you need to know a lot, and you need to do a lot more coding and checking than when you fit an lmer type of model.

It took me 1.5 to 2 years of hard work (=evenings spent not reading novels) to get to the point that I knew roughly what I was doing when fitting Bayesian models. I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to put their life on hold to get to such a point. I find the Bayesian method attractive because it actually answers the question I really asked, namely is θ>0 or θ<0? This is really great, I don’t have beat around the bush any more! (there; I just used an exclamation mark). But for the researcher unwilling (or more likely: unable) to invest the time into the maths and probability theory and the world of BUGS, the distance between a heuristic like a low p-value and the more sensible Bayesian approach is not that large.

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