The earth is flat (p < 0.05): significance thresholds and the crisis of unreplicable research

Amrhein, Valentin and Korner-Nievergelt, Fränzi and Roth, Tobias. (2017) The earth is flat (p < 0.05): significance thresholds and the crisis of unreplicable research. PeerJ, 5. e3544.

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The widespread use of ‘statistical significance’ as a license for making a claim of a scientific finding leads to considerable distortion of the scientific process (according to the American Statistical Association). We review why degrading p -values into ‘significant’ and ‘nonsignificant’ contributes to making studies irreproducible, or to making them seem irreproducible. A major problem is that we tend to take small p -values at face value, but mistrust results with larger p -values. In either case, p -values tell little about reliability of research, because they are hardly replicable even if an alternative hypothesis is true. Also significance ( p ≤ 0.05) is hardly replicable: at a good statistical power of 80%, two studies will be ‘conflicting’, meaning that one is significant and the other is not, in one third of the cases if there is a true effect. A replication can therefore not be interpreted as having failed only because it is nonsignificant. Many apparent replication failures may thus reflect faulty judgment based on significance thresholds rather than a crisis of unreplicable research. Reliable conclusions on replicability and practical importance of a finding can only be drawn using cumulative evidence from multiple independent studies. However, applying significance thresholds makes cumulative knowledge unreliable. One reason is that with anything but ideal statistical power, significant effect sizes will be biased upwards. Interpreting inflated significant results while ignoring nonsignificant results will thus lead to wrong conclusions. But current incentives to hunt for significance lead to selective reporting and to publication bias against nonsignificant findings. Data dredging, p -hacking, and publication bias should be addressed by removing fixed significance thresholds. Consistent with the recommendations of the late Ronald Fisher, p -values should be interpreted as graded measures of the strength of evidence against the null hypothesis. Also larger p -values offer some evidence against the null hypothesis, and they cannot be interpreted as supporting the null hypothesis, falsely concluding that ‘there is no effect’. Information on possible true effect sizes that are compatible with the data must be obtained from the point estimate, e.g., from a sample average, and from the interval estimate, such as a confidence interval. We review how confusion about interpretation of larger p -values can be traced back to historical disputes among the founders of modern statistics. We further discuss potential arguments against removing significance thresholds, for example that decision rules should rather be more stringent, that sample sizes could decrease, or that p -values should better be completely abandoned. We conclude that whatever method of statistical inference we use, dichotomous threshold thinking must give way to non-automated informed judgment.
Faculties and Departments:05 Faculty of Science > Departement Umweltwissenschaften > Integrative Biologie > Behavioural Ecology (Amrhein)
UniBasel Contributors:Amrhein, Valentin
Item Type:Article, refereed
Article Subtype:Research Article
Note:Publication type according to Uni Basel Research Database: Journal article
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Last Modified:12 Jul 2019 15:12
Deposited On:02 Feb 2018 12:34

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