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Moving Science’s Statistical Goalposts

Stuart Vyse is a psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, which won the William James Book Award of the American Psychological Association. He is a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

In 1989, Ralph Rosnow and Robert Rosenthal, two well-respected experts on statistical methods in psychology, wrote the following memorable line: “We want to underscore that, surely, God loves the .06 nearly as much as the .05” (Rosnow and Rosenthal 1989, 1277).

For researchers in psychology—as well as in the biological and social sciences—this was an amusing statement because .05 is the Holy Grail of statistical significance. It may seem unusual to use religious language when writing about scientific methods, but the metaphor is fitting because, for almost as long as scientists have used statistical methods, achieving a probability of .05 or less (e.g., .04, .027, .004) meant publication, academic success, and another step toward the financial security of tenure. But .06 or even .055 meant nothing. No publication and no progress toward a comfortable retirement.

Rosnow and Rosenthal were arguing that scientists had been overly concerned with a single, arbitrary cut-off score, p < .05, but today their plea sounds a bit antique. In the latest response to the “reproducibility crisis” in psychology (see my June 2015 online column, “Has Science a Problem?”) a group of seventy-two accomplished statisticians, biologists, and social scientists have signed a statement proposing that the criterion be changed from .05 to .005. This may seem like a nerdy technical issue, but the proposed change has profound implications for the progress of science and has ignited a vigorous controversy in the field. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s step back and figure out what this is all about.

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