What I’ve described to you in this chapter is the orthodox framework for null hypothesis significance testing (NHST). Understanding how NHST works is an absolute necessity, since it has been the dominant approach to inferential statistics ever since it came to prominence in the early 20th century. It’s what the vast majority of working scientists rely on for their data analysis, so even if you hate it you need to know it. However, the approach is not without problems. There are a number of quirks in the framework, historical oddities in how it came to be, theoretical disputes over whether or not the framework is right, and a lot of practical traps for the unwary. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail on this topic, but I think it’s worth briefly discussing a few of these issues.
Neyman versus Fisher
The first thing you should be aware of is that orthodox NHST is actually a mash-up of two rather different approaches to hypothesis testing, one proposed by Sir Ronald Fisher and the other proposed by Jerzy Neyman (for a historical summary see Lehmann 2011). The history is messy because Fisher and Neyman were real people whose opinions changed over time, and at no point did either of them offer “the definitive statement” of how we should interpret their work many decades later. That said, here’s a quick summary of what I take these two approaches to be.
First, let’s talk about Fisher’s approach. As far as I can tell, Fisher assumed that you only had the one hypothesis (the null), and what you want to do is find out if the null hypothesis is inconsistent with the data. From his perspective, what you should do is check to see if the data are “sufficiently unlikely” according to the null. In fact, if you remember back to our earlier discussion, that’s how Fisher defines the p-value. According to Fisher, if the null hypothesis provided a very poor account of the data, you could safely reject it. But, since you don’t have any other hypotheses to compare it to, there’s no way of “accepting the alternative” because you don’t necessarily have an explicitly stated alternative. That’s more or less all that there was to it.
In contrast, Neyman thought that the point of hypothesis testing was as a guide to action, and his approach was somewhat more formal than Fisher’s. His view was that there are multiple things that you could do (accept the null or accept the alternative) and the point of the test was to tell you which one the data support. From this perspective, it is critical to specify your alternative hypothesis properly. If you don’t know what the alternative hypothesis is, then you don’t know how powerful the test is, or even which action makes sense. His framework genuinely requires a competition between different hypotheses. For Neyman, the p value didn’t directly measure the probability of the data (or data more extreme) under the null, it was more of an abstract description about which “possible tests” were telling you to accept the null, and which “possible tests” were telling you to accept the alternative.
As you can see, what we have today is an odd mishmash of the two. We talk about having both a null hypothesis and an alternative (Neyman), but usually168 define the p value in terms of exreme data (Fisher), but we still have α values (Neyman). Some of the statistical tests have explicitly specified alternatives (Neyman) but others are quite vague about it (Fisher). And, according to some people at least, we’re not allowed to talk about accepting the alternative (Fisher). It’s a mess: but I hope this at least explains why it’s a mess.
Bayesians versus frequentists
Earlier on in this chapter I was quite emphatic about the fact that you cannot interpret the p value as the probability that the null hypothesis is true. NHST is fundamentally a frequentist tool (see Chapter 9) and as such it does not allow you to assign probabilities to hypotheses: the null hypothesis is either true or it is not. The Bayesian approach to statistics interprets probability as a degree of belief, so it’s totally okay to say that there is a 10% chance that the null hypothesis is true: that’s just a reflection of the degree of confidence that you have in this hypothesis. You aren’t allowed to do this within the frequentist approach. Remember, if you’re a frequentist, a probability can only be defined in terms of what happens after a large number of independent replications (i.e., a long run frequency). If this is your interpretation of probability, talking about the “probability” that the null hypothesis is true is complete gibberish: a null hypothesis is either true or it is false. There’s no way you can talk about a long run frequency for this statement. To talk about “the probability of the null hypothesis” is as meaningless as “the colour of freedom”. It doesn’t have one!
Most importantly, this isn’t a purely ideological matter. If you decide that you are a Bayesian and that you’re okay with making probability statements about hypotheses, you have to follow the Bayesian rules for calculating those probabilities. I’ll talk more about this in Chapter 17, but for now what I want to point out to you is the p value is a terrible approximation to the probability that H0 is true. If what you want to know is the probability of the null, then the p value is not what you’re looking for!
As you can see, the theory behind hypothesis testing is a mess, and even now there are arguments in statistics about how it “should” work. However, disagreements among statisticians are not our real concern here. Our real concern is practical data analysis. And while the “orthodox” approach to null hypothesis significance testing has many drawbacks, even an unrepentant Bayesian like myself would agree that they can be useful if used responsibly. Most of the time they give sensible answers, and you can use them to learn interesting things. Setting aside the various ideologies and historical confusions that we’ve discussed, the fact remains that the biggest danger in all of statistics is thoughtlessness. I don’t mean stupidity, here: I literally mean thoughtlessness. The rush to interpret a result without spending time thinking through what each test actually says about the data, and checking whether that’s consistent with how you’ve interpreted it. That’s where the biggest trap lies.
To give an example of this, consider the following example (see Gelman and Stern 2006). Suppose I’m running my ESP study, and I’ve decided to analyse the data separately for the male participants and the female participants. Of the male participants, 33 out of 50 guessed the colour of the card correctly. This is a significant effect (p=.03). Of the female participants, 29 out of 50 guessed correctly. This is not a significant effect (p=.32). Upon observing this, it is extremely tempting for people to start wondering why there is a difference between males and females in terms of their psychic abilities. However, this is wrong. If you think about it, we haven’t actually run a test that explicitly compares males to females. All we have done is compare males to chance (binomial test was significant) and compared females to chance (binomial test was non significant). If we want to argue that there is a real difference between the males and the females, we should probably run a test of the null hypothesis that there is no difference! We can do that using a different hypothesis test,169 but when we do that it turns out that we have no evidence that males and females are significantly different (p=.54). Now do you think that there’s anything fundamentally different between the two groups? Of course not. What’s happened here is that the data from both groups (male and female) are pretty borderline: by pure chance, one of them happened to end up on the magic side of the p=.05 line, and the other one didn’t. That doesn’t actually imply that males and females are different. This mistake is so common that you should always be wary of it: the difference between significant and not-significant is not evidence of a real difference – if you want to say that there’s a difference between two groups, then you have to test for that difference!
The example above is just that: an example. I’ve singled it out because it’s such a common one, but the bigger picture is that data analysis can be tricky to get right. Think about what it is you want to test, why you want to test it, and whether or not the answers that your test gives could possibly make any sense in the real world.