Lies, damned lies and amateur statistics by Piet Groeneboom
Piet’s blog actually has a different title, but same theme. Here’s my take on the matter.
It has been known for a long time that “careless statistics costs lives” and I am referring specifically to bad statistics in medical research. 15 years ago about 90% of statistics in medical journals was wrong, things have improved, now it’s only 50%. Consistently across journals, across sub-fields. The most frequent error is the misunderstanding of p-values and a common recommendation is to have them banned. All this does literally cost lives: the good treatments are not discovered, time and resources … and hence lives … are lost following up “spurious correlations” (often discovered during fishing expeditions and/or using inappropriate statistical methods). Sally Clarke is another example of a life lost to amateur statistics (amateur statistics of an arrogant and self-satisfied medical specialist who transferred his “scientific conclusions” into legal brains with ease). For a good laugh (but perhaps the laugh of a farmer with toothache, as we say here in the polder) enjoy Peter Donnelly’s TED lecture. One of the many scientific papers carefully analysing abuse of statistics remarked how strange it is that we insist on getting brain surgery from a professional brain-surgeon, but are happy to have our statistics done by an amateur. Well, people who rely on amateur statistics, or worse still, are proud of their own, ought to go and see a brain-surgeon (for my very special friends: sshhh, I know this great Polish plumber … ).