Statistics: Friend or Foe?

In this week’s Science, Greg Miller describes recent uproar about a study that claims to have scientific support for the existence of extrasensory perception (ESP). Of course, ESP being in the realm of the paranormal, it ought to be somewhat outside the purview of Big Science.

But who cares about ESP?! What comes under scrutiny is statistics, the mathematical theory underlying hypothesis testing. And inference. The brief story is worth a read, as it cites statisticians on what these statistical tests actually tell us, as well as the ups and downs of Bayesian stats.
An important thing to keep in mind is that no matter how mathematical, statistics is nevertheless like everything else in science – a human endeavor. No matter how creative and insightful humans can be, there’s always a limit to our ability to decipher the world around us. I’m certainly not decrying statistics, but it’s important to keep in mind that these aren’t just handed down to us from on high. We human beings play a critical (and often subjective) hand in how we apply statistics to address our research questions.
Along these lines, just last night I was reading about body mass variation in the Gombe chimpanzees (Pusey et al. 2005), and the authors provide a very insightful quote from statistician George Box:

All models are wrong; some models are useful.

As I added to this on Facebook, “… some models can be hott.”
Miller G (2011). Statistics. ESP paper rekindles discussion about statistics. Science (New York, N.Y.), 331 (6015), 272-3 PMID: 21252321
Pusey, A., Oehlert, G., Williams, J., & Goodall, J. (2005). Influence of Ecological and Social Factors on Body Mass of Wild Chimpanzees International Journal of Primatology, 26 (1), 3-31 DOI: 10.1007/s10764-005-0721-2

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