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The insignificance of significance

Summary:
The insignificance of significance A significance test is a scientific instrument, and like any other instrument, it has a certain degree of precision. If you make the test more sensitive—by increasing the size of the studied population, for example—you enable yourself to see ever-smaller effects. That’s the power of the method, but also its danger. The truth is, the null hypothesis, if we take it literally, is probably just about always false. When you drop a powerful drug into a patient’s bloodstream, it’s hard to believe the intervention has exactly zero effect on the probability that the patient will develop esophageal cancer, or thrombosis, or bad breath … If only we could go back in time to the dawn of statistical nomenclature and declare that a

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The insignificance of significance

The insignificance of significanceA significance test is a scientific instrument, and like any other instrument, it has a certain degree of precision. If you make the test more sensitive—by increasing the size of the studied population, for example—you enable yourself to see ever-smaller effects. That’s the power of the method, but also its danger. The truth is, the null hypothesis, if we take it literally, is probably just about always false. When you drop a powerful drug into a patient’s bloodstream, it’s hard to believe the intervention has exactly zero effect on the probability that the patient will develop esophageal cancer, or thrombosis, or bad breath …

If only we could go back in time to the dawn of statistical nomenclature and declare that a result passing Fisher’s test with a p-value of less than 0.05 was “statistically noticeable” or “statistically detectable” instead of “statistically significant”! That would be truer to the meaning of the method, which merely counsels us about the existence of an effect but is silent about its size or importance.

Jordan Ellenberg

Lars Pålsson Syll
Professor at Malmö University. Primary research interest - the philosophy, history and methodology of economics.

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