p-values and decision-making [reposted]

In a letter to Significance about a review of Robert Matthews’s book, Chancing it, Nicholas Longford recalls a few basic facts about p-values and decision-making earlier made by Dennis Lindley in Making Decisions. Here are some excerpts, worth repeating in the light of the 0.005 proposal:

“A statement of significance based on a p-value is a verdict that is oblivious to consequences. In my view, this disqualifies hypothesis testing, and p-values with it, from making rational decisions. Of course, the p-value could be supplemented by considerations of these consequences, although this is rarely done in a transparent manner. However, the two-step procedure of calculating the p-value and then incorporating the consequences is unlikely to match in its integrity the single-stage procedure in which we compare the expected losses associated with the two contemplated options.”

“At present, [Lindley’s] decision-theoretical approach is difficult to implement in practice. This is not because of any computational complexity or some problematic assumptions, but because of our collective reluctance to inquire about the consequences – about our clients’ priorities, remits and value judgements. Instead, we promote a culture of “objective” analysis, epitomised by the 5% threshold in significance testing. It corresponds to a particular balance of consequences, which may or may not mirror our clients’ perspective.”

“The p-value and statistical significance are at best half-baked products in the process of making decisions, and a distraction at worst, because the ultimate conclusion of a statistical analysis should be a proposal for what to do next in our clients’ or our own research, business, production or some other agenda. Let’s reflect and admit how frequently we abuse hypothesis testing by adopting (sometimes by stealth) the null hypothesis when we fail to reject it, and therefore do so without any evidence to support it. How frequently we report, or are party to reporting, the results of hypothesis tests selectively. The problem is not with our failing to adhere to the convoluted strictures of a popular method, but with the method itself. In the 1950s, it was a great statistical invention, and its popularisation later on a great scientific success. Alas, decades later, it is rather out of date, like the steam engine. It is poorly suited to the demands of modern science, business, and society in general, in which the budget and pocketbook are important factors.”

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