IN THE NEWS: Wired (November 26, 2019)

[Excerpts taken from the article, “We’re All ‘P-Hacking’ Now” by Christie Aschwanden, publised in Wired]
“It’s got an entry in the Urban Dictionary, been discussed on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, scored a wink from Cards Against Humanity, and now it’s been featured in a clue on the TV game show Jeopardy. Metascience nerds rejoice! The term p-hacking has gone mainstream.”
“Journals generally prefer to publish statistically significant results, so scientists have incentives to select ways of parsing and analyzing their data that produce a p-value under 0.05. That’s p-hacking.”
“Psychologists Uri Simonsohn, Joseph Simmons, and Leif Nelson elegantly demonstrated the problem in what is now a classic paper. “False-Positive Psychology,” published in 2011, used well-accepted methods in the field to show that the act of listening to the Beatles song “When I’m Sixty-Four” could take a year and a half off someone’s age.”
“It all started over dinner at a conference where a group of researchers was discussing some findings they found difficult to believe. Afterward, Simonsohn, Simmons, and Nelson decided to see how easy it would be to reverse-engineer an impossible result with a p-value of less than 0.05. “We started brainstorming—if we wanted to show an effect that isn’t true, how would you run a study to get that result without faking anything?” Simonsohn told me.”
“They produced their absurd conclusion by exploiting what they called “researcher degrees of freedom”: the little decisions that scientists make as they’re designing a study and collecting and analyzing data.”
“The problem, as the Beatles song experiment showed, is that this kind of fiddling around allows researchers to manipulate their study conditions until they get the answer that they want…”
“A year later, the team went public with its new and better name for this phenomenon. At a psychology conference in 2012, Simonsohn gave a talk in which he used the term p-hacking for the first time.”
“’We needed a shorter word to describe [this set of behaviors], and p-dash-something seemed to make sense,’ Simmons says. ‘P-hacking was definitely a better term than ‘researcher degrees of freedom’ because you could use it as a noun or an adjective.'”
“The phrase made its formal debut in a paper the team published in 2014, where they wrote ‘p-hacking can allow researchers to get most studies to reveal significant relationships between truly unrelated variables.'”
As a wider conversation about reproducibility spread through the field of psychology, rival ways of describing p-hacking and related issues gained attention too. Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman had used the term “the garden of forking paths” to describe the array of choices that researchers can select from when they’re embarking on a study analysis.”
“‘People say p-hacking and it sounds like someone’s cheating,” Gelman says. “The flip side is that people know they didn’t cheat, so they don’t think they did anything wrong…'”
“Simmons is sympathetic to this criticism. “We probably didn’t think enough about the connotations of the word ‘hacking,’ which implies intentions,” he says. ‘It sounds worse than we wanted it to.'”
“Still, there’s something indisputably appealing about the term p-hacking. “You can’t say that someone got their data and garden-of-forking-pathed it,” Nelson adds. ‘We wanted to make it into a single action term.'”
“The fact that p-hacking has now spread out of science and into pop culture could indicate a watershed moment in the public understanding of science, and a growing awareness that studies can’t always be taken at face value. But it’s hard to know exactly how the term is being understood at large.”
“In a perfect world, the wider public would understand that p-hacking refers not to some lousy tendency or lazy habit particular to researchers, but one that’s present everywhere. We all p-hack, to some extent, every time we set out to understand the evidence in the world around us. If there’s a takeaway here, it’s that science is hard—and sometimes our human foibles make it even harder.”
To read the article, click here.

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