Killing the P-Value Messenger

Does the argument about p-values miss the big problem? One might argue that blaming p-values for our mis-uses of p-values is akin to blaming the messenger for bad news.
How do we use p-values? Prior to publishing, we use p-values as gate keepers. A small p-value indicates a 'significant' and therefore 'real' result, while large p-values indicate that a particular effect is not there or not worth mentioning. Researchers emphasize their results that have small p-values, while ignoring or not mentioning results with large p-values. Often results with large p-values are omitted from a paper. Having at least one small p-value is considered de rigueur to bother submitting a paper, and a paper with no significant results will either be reworked until
some p-value is small (torturing the data until the data speaks) or the paper will be laid to rest without being submitted (the file drawer problem).

It seems to me the problem isn't the p-value. The problem isn't even that a lot of people don't quite understand the underlying logic of what a p-value is. The problem is that p-values are used to determine which results are presented to the broader scientific community and which results are ignored. But when we read a result
in an article in the scientific literature, we typically assume the canonical (but false) idea that the authors wanted to test that specific result or hypothesis, and then reported that specific result or hypothesis.

The truth is that there are quite a few results that authors could report in most studies. Authors choose the results that are actually reported in the paper. And this choosing is closely correlated with the p-value. This is commonly called selection bias.

To over-simplify slightly, there are two ways to get a significant p-value. One way is to have an underlying effect that is strong with a study that has the power to identify that strong effect. Another way is to have an unusually strong result that isn't warranted by the underlying truth. The first way is that there is an actual effect, and the second way is 'something unusual' occurred. Testing lots of hypotheses gets you lots of chances to get a significant result. With each test you may have identified something real, or you may have gotten lucky.

Unfortunately, when researchers get lucky, society gets unlikely. It's a situation where society's utility function and researchers' utility functions may be at odds with each other. Researchers with few exceptions do want to actually identify real effects. However, researchers operate in a milieu that rewards significant results. And especially, journal publishing rewards splashy and unusual results more than steady straightforward routine results or worse, non-results which means not-significant results. There are stories (of real researchers) getting wealthy by marketing modest (and probably lucky) but splashy findings into big businesses.

Scientists test a lot of hypotheses. Some of these tests are due to direct interest as when we assess a treatment's effect on a sample of subjects. Much of it is exploratory, as when we try to find the demographic characteristics that lead to higher values of some outcome. In addition, some tests of hypothesis are not straightforward, as when it requires exploratory analysis to build a model. When we build a complicated model to identify the effects of a given hypothesis, then we are subject to selection bias that occurs when we add model terms that distinguish a treatment's effects and we omit model terms that do not seem to distinguish treatment from control.

The problem is that, due to selection bias, our scientific literature is likely filled with results whose strength has been
over-inflated. Now how over-inflated the typical result is depends on the underlying ground truth that is being explored in the literature. But when we have a large literature, and many researchers looking for many different effects, and few people checking results (it's less prestigious after all!) we're likely to have lots of candidate results that are not all correct but are all treated as real.

There have been a few attempts at validation studies, where researchers have gone back and tried to duplicate a number of past results in the literature. These validation studies don't validate all the past findings. Is this due to the original studies identifying false effects? Or is it because the follow-up study got unlucky and didn't manage to identify an actual effect? Perhaps a combination: the original study over estimated the effect size, and the validation study was under powered due to the original over estimation.

So should we toss out p-values? As a Bayesian, I made my peace with p-values a while ago. Now, two sided p-values are a bit weird and possibly a touch creepy from a Bayesian perspective. However, a one-sided p-value has a simple Bayesian interpretation that is actually useful. Suppose our estimate of a treatment effect is that treatment has a positive effect on the outcome. Then the Bayesian interpretation of a one-sided p-value (the one-side smaller than 0.5) is the probability, given the data, that the treatment effect in this study is actually harmful. It's a useful summary of the
results of an analysis. Its not a sufficient statistic in either the English or statistical senses of the word with regard to how we should interpret the particular result.

It seems to me that the problem is more of selection. We select for strong results. We pay attention to strong results. We really pay attention to unusual and weird results. The popular press picks up unusual results and magnifies their impact immensely, without evaluating whether the reported result is likely to be true or not. Thus we propagate ideas based on something distinct from their likelihood of being true.

So don't shoot the messenger, neither messenger RNA nor messenger pidgeon. Oops too late, we already shot that last one. Consider how we can solve the crisis of scientific selection.

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