Several reviews of Deborah Mayo’s new book, Statistical Inference as Severe Testing: How to Get Beyond the Statistics Wars

A few months ago I sent the following message to some people:

Dear philosophically-inclined colleagues:

I’d like to organize an online discussion of Deborah Mayo’s new book.

The table of contents and some of the book are here at Google books, also in the attached pdf and in this post by Mayo.

I think that many, if not all, of Mayo’s points in her Excursion 4 are answered by my article with Hennig here.

What I was thinking for this discussion is that if you’re interested you can write something, either a review of Mayo’s book (if you happen to have a copy of it) or a review of the posted material, or just your general thoughts on the topic of statistical inference as severe testing.

I’m hoping to get this all done this month, because it’s all informal and what’s the point of dragging it out, right? So if you’d be interested in writing something on this that you’d be willing to share with the world, please let me know. It should be fun, I hope!

I did this in consultation with Deborah Mayo, and I just sent this email to a few people (so if you were not included, please don’t feel left out! You have a chance to participate right now!), because our goal here was to get the discussion going. The idea was to get some reviews, and this could spark a longer discussion here in the comments section.

And, indeed, we received several responses. And I’ll also point you to my paper with Shalizi on the philosophy of Bayesian statistics, with discussions by Mark Andrews and Thom Baguley, Denny Borsboom and Brian Haig, John Kruschke, Deborah Mayo, Stephen Senn, and Richard D. Morey, Jan-Willem Romeijn and Jeffrey N. Rouder.

Also relevant is this summary by Mayo of some examples from her book.

And now on to the reviews.

Brian Haig

I’ll start with psychology researcher Brian Haig, because he’s a strong supporter of Mayo’s message and his review also serves as an introduction and summary of her ideas. The review itself is a few pages long, so I will quote from it, interspersing some of my own reaction:

Deborah Mayo’s ground-breaking book, Error and the growth of statistical knowledge (1996) . . . presented the first extensive formulation of her error-statistical perspective on statistical inference. Its novelty lay in the fact that it employed ideas in statistical science to shed light on philosophical problems to do with evidence and inference.

By contrast, Mayo’s just-published book, Statistical inference as severe testing (SIST) (2018), focuses on problems arising from statistical practice (“the statistics wars”), but endeavors to solve them by probing their foundations from the vantage points of philosophy of science, and philosophy of statistics. The “statistics wars” to which Mayo refers concern fundamental debates about the nature and foundations of statistical inference. These wars are longstanding and recurring. Today, they fuel the ongoing concern many sciences have with replication failures, questionable research practices, and the demand for an improvement of research integrity. . . .

For decades, numerous calls have been made for replacing tests of statistical significance with alternative statistical methods. The new statistics, a package deal comprising effect sizes, confidence intervals, and meta-analysis, is one reform movement that has been heavily promoted in psychological circles (Cumming, 2012; 2014) as a much needed successor to null hypothesis significance testing (NHST) . . .

The new statisticians recommend replacing NHST with their favored statistical methods by asserting that it has several major flaws. Prominent among them are the familiar claims that NHST encourages dichotomous thinking, and that it comprises an indefensible amalgam of the Fisherian and Neyman-Pearson schools of thought. However, neither of these features applies to the error-statistical understanding of NHST. . . .

There is a double irony in the fact that the new statisticians criticize NHST for encouraging simplistic dichotomous thinking: As already noted, such thinking is straightforwardly avoided by employing tests of statistical significance properly, whether or not one adopts the error-statistical perspective. For another, the adoption of standard frequentist confidence intervals in place of NHST forces the new statisticians to engage in dichotomous thinking of another kind: A parameter estimate is either inside, or outside, its confidence interval.

At this point I’d like to interrupt and say that a confidence or interval (or simply an estimate with standard error) can be used to give a sense of inferential uncertainty. There is no reason for dichotomous thinking when confidence intervals, or uncertainty intervals, or standard errors, are used in practice.

Here’s a very simple example from my book with Jennifer:

This graph has a bunch of estimates +/- standard errors, that is, 68% confidence intervals, with no dichotomous thinking in sight. In contrast, testing some hypothesis of no change over time, or no change during some period of time, would make no substantive sense and would just be an invitation to add noise to our interpretation of these data.

OK, to continue with Haig’s review:

Error-statisticians have good reason for claiming that their reinterpretation of frequentist confidence intervals is superior to the standard view. The standard account of confidence intervals adopted by the new statisticians prespecifies a single confidence interval (a strong preference for 0.95 in their case). . . . By contrast, the error-statistician draws inferences about each of the obtained values according to whether they are warranted, or not, at different severity levels, thus leading to a series of confidence intervals. Crucially, the different values will not have the same probative force. . . . Details on the error-statistical conception of confidence intervals can be found in SIST (pp. 189-201), as well as Mayo and Spanos (2011) and Spanos (2014). . . .

SIST makes clear that, with its error-statistical perspective, statistical inference can be employed to deal with both estimation and hypothesis testing problems. It also endorses the view that providing explanations of things is an important part of science.

Another interruption from me . . . I just want to plug my paper with Guido Imbens, Why ask why? Forward causal inference and reverse causal questions, in which we argue that Why questions can be interpreted as model checks, or, one might say, hypothesis tests—but tests of hypotheses of interest, not of straw-man null hypotheses. Perhaps there’s some connection between Mayo’s ideas and those of Guido and me on this point.

Haig continues with a discussion of Bayesian methods, including those of my collaborators and myself:

One particularly important modern variant of Bayesian thinking, which receives attention in SIST, is the falsificationist Bayesianism of . . . Gelman and Shalizi (2013). Interestingly, Gelman regards his Bayesian philosophy as essentially error-statistical in nature – an intriguing claim, given the anti-Bayesian preferences of both Mayo and Gelman’s co-author, Cosma Shalizi. . . . Gelman acknowledges that his falsificationist Bayesian philosophy is underdeveloped, so it will be interesting to see how its further development relates to Mayo’s error-statistical perspective. It will also be interesting to see if Bayesian thinkers in psychology engage with Gelman’s brand of Bayesian thinking. Despite the appearance of his work in a prominent psychology journal, they have yet to do so. . . .

Hey, not quite! I’ve done a lot of collaboration with psychologists; see here and search on “Iven Van Mechelen” and “Francis Tuerlinckx”—but, sure, I recognize that our Bayesian methods, while mainstream in various fields including ecology and political science, are not yet widely used in psychology.

Haig concludes:

From a sympathetic, but critical, reading of Popper, Mayo endorses his strategy of developing scientific knowledge by identifying and correcting errors through strong tests of scientific claims. . . . A heartening attitude that comes through in SIST is the firm belief that a philosophy of statistics is an important part of statistical thinking. This contrasts markedly with much of statistical theory, and most of statistical practice. Given that statisticians operate with an implicit philosophy, whether they know it or not, it is better that they avail themselves of an explicitly thought-out philosophy that serves practice in useful ways.

I agree, very much.

To paraphrase Bill James, the alternative to good philosophy is not “no philosophy,” it’s “bad philosophy.” I’ve spent too much time seeing Bayesians avoid checking their models out of a philosophical conviction that subjective priors cannot be empirically questioned, and too much time seeing non-Bayesians produce ridiculous estimates that could have been avoided by using available outside information. There’s nothing so practical as good practice, but good philosophy can facilitate both the development and acceptance of better methods.

E. J. Wagenmakers

I’ll follow up with a very short review, or, should I say, reaction-in-place-of-a-review, from psychometrician E. J. Wagenmakers:

I cannot comment on the contents of this book, because doing so would require me to read it, and extensive prior knowledge suggests that I will violently disagree with almost every claim that is being made. Hence I will solely review the book’s title, and state my prediction that the “statistics wars” will not be over until the last Fisherian is strung up by the entrails of the last Neyman-Pearsonite, and all who remain have been happily assimilated by the Bayesian Borg. When exactly this event will transpire I don’t know, but I fear I shall not be around to witness it. In my opinion, the only long-term hope for vague concepts such as the “severity” of a test is to embed them within a rational (i.e., Bayesian) framework, but I suspect that this is not the route that the author wishes to pursue. Perhaps this book is comforting to those who have neither the time nor the desire to learn Bayesian inference, in a similar way that homeopathy provides comfort to patients with a serious medical condition.

You don’t have to agree with E. J. to appreciate his honesty!

Art Owen

Coming from a different perspective is theoretical statistician Art Owen, whose review has some mathematical formulas—nothing too complicated, but not so easy to display in html, so I’ll just link to the pdf and share some excerpts:

There is an emphasis throughout on the importance of severe testing. It has long been known that a test that fails to reject H0 is not very conclusive if it had low power to reject H0. So I wondered whether there was anything more to the severity idea than that. After some searching I found on page 343 a description of how the severity idea differs from the power notion. . . .

I think that it might be useful in explaining a failure to reject H0 as the sample size being too small. . . . it is extremely hard to measure power post hoc because there is too much uncertainty about the effect size. Then, even if you want it, you probably cannot reliably get it. I think severity is likely to be in the same boat. . . .

I believe that the statistical problem from incentives is more severe than choice between Bayesian and frequentist methods or problems with people not learning how to use either kind of method properly. . . . We usually teach and do research assuming a scientific loss function that rewards being right. . . . In practice many people using statistics are advocates. . . . The loss function strongly informs their analysis, be it Bayesian or frequentist. The scientist and advocate both want to minimize their expected loss. They are led to different methods. . . .

I appreciate Owen’s efforts to link Mayo’s words to the equations that we would ultimately need to implement, or evaluate, her ideas in statistics.

Robert Cousins

Physicist Robert Cousins did not have the time to write a comment on Mayo’s book, but he did point us to this monograph he wrote on the foundations of statistics, which has lots of interesting stuff but is unfortunately a bit out of date when it comes to the philosophy of Bayesian statistics, which he ties in with subjective probability. (For a corrective, see my aforementioned article with Hennig.)

In his email to me, Cousins also addressed issues of statistical and practical significance:

Our [particle physicists’] problems and the way we approach them are quite different from some other fields of science, especially social science. As one example, I think I recall reading that you do not mind adding a parameter to your model, whereas adding (certain) parameters to our models means adding a new force of nature (!) and a Nobel Prize if true. As another example, a number of statistics papers talk about how silly it is to claim a 10^{⁻4} departure from 0.5 for a binomial parameter (ESP examples, etc), using it as a classic example of the difference between nominal (probably mismeasured) statistical significance and practical significance. In contrast, when I was a grad student, a famous experiment in our field measured a 10^{⁻4} departure from 0.5 with an uncertainty of 10% of itself, i.e., with an uncertainty of 10^{⁻5}. (Yes, the order or 10^10 Bernoulli trials—counting electrons being scattered left or right.) This led quickly to a Nobel Prize for Steven Weinberg et al., whose model (now “Standard”) had predicted the effect.

I replied:

This interests me in part because I am a former physicist myself. I have done work in physics and in statistics, and I think the principles of statistics that I have applied to social science, also apply to physical sciences. Regarding the discussion of Bem’s experiment, what I said was not that an effect of 0.0001 is unimportant, but rather that if you were to really believe Bem’s claims, there could be effects of +0.0001 in some settings, -0.002 in others, etc. If this is interesting, fine: I’m not a psychologist. One of the key mistakes of Bem and others like him is to suppose that, even if they happen to have discovered an effect in some scenario, there is no reason to suppose this represents some sort of universal truth. Humans differ from each other in a way that elementary particles to not.

And Cousins replied:

Indeed in the binomial experiment I mentioned, controlling unknown systematic effects to the level of 10^{-5}, so that what they were measuring (a constant of nature called the Weinberg angle, now called the weak mixing angle) was what they intended to measure, was a heroic effort by the experimentalists.

Stan Young

Stan Young, a statistician who’s worked in the pharmaceutical industry, wrote:

I’ve been reading at the Mayo book and also pestering where I think poor statistical practice is going on. Usually the poor practice is by non-professionals and usually it is not intentionally malicious however self-serving. But I think it naive to think that education is all that is needed. Or some grand agreement among professional statisticians will end the problems.

There are science crooks and statistical crooks and there are no cops, or very few.

That is a long way of saying, this problem is not going to be solved in 30 days, or by one paper, or even by one book or by three books! (I’ve read all three.)

I think a more open-ended and longer dialog would be more useful with at least some attention to willful and intentional misuse of statistics.

Chambers C. The Seven Deadly Sins of Psychology. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2017.

Harris R. Rigor mortis: how sloppy science creates worthless cures, crushes hope, and wastes billions. New York: Basic books, 2017.

Hubbard R. Corrupt Research. London: Sage Publications, 2015.

Christian Hennig

Hennig, a statistician and my collaborator on the Beyond Subjective and Objective paper, send in two reviews of Mayo’s book.

Here are his general comments:

What I like about Deborah Mayo’s “Statistical Inference as Severe Testing”

Before I start to list what I like about “Statistical Inference as Severe Testing”. I should say that I don’t agree with everything in the book. In particular, as a constructivist I am skeptical about the use of terms like “objectivity”, “reality” and “truth” in the book, and I think that Mayo’s own approach may not be able to deliver everything that people may come to believe it could, from reading the book (although Mayo could argue that overly high expectations could be avoided by reading carefully).

So now, what do I like about it?

1) I agree with the broad concept of severity and severe testing. In order to have evidence for a claim, it has to be tested in ways that would reject the claim with high probability if it indeed were false. I also think that it makes a lot of sense to start a philosophy of statistics and a critical discussion of statistical methods and reasoning from this requirement. Furthermore, throughout the book Mayo consistently argues from this position, which makes the different “Excursions” fit well together and add up to a consistent whole.

2) I get a lot out of the discussion of the philosophical background of scientific inquiry, of induction, probabilism, falsification and corroboration, and their connection to statistical inference. I think that it makes sense to connect Popper’s philosophy to significance tests in the way Mayo does (without necessarily claiming that this is the only possible way to do it), and I think that her arguments are broadly convincing at least if I take a realist perspective of science (which as a constructivist I can do temporarily while keeping the general reservation that this is about a specific construction of reality which I wouldn’t grant absolute authority).

3) I think that Mayo does by and large a good job listing much of the criticism that has been raised in the literature against significance testing, and she deals with it well. Partly she criticises bad uses of significance testing herself by referring to the severity requirement, but she also defends a well understood use in a more general philosophical framework of testing scientific theories and claims in a piecemeal manner. I find this largely convincing, conceding that there is a lot of detail and that I may find myself in agreement with the occasional objection against the odd one of her arguments.

4) The same holds for her comprehensive discussion of Bayesian/probabilist foundations in Excursion 6. I think that she elaborates issues and inconsistencies in the current use of Bayesian reasoning very well, maybe with the odd exception.

5) I am in full agreement with Mayo’s position that when using probability modelling, it is important to be clear about the meaning of the computed probabilities. Agreement in numbers between different “camps” isn’t worth anything if the numbers mean different things. A problem with some positions that are sold as “pragmatic” these days is that often not enough care is put into interpreting what the results mean, or even deciding in advance what kind of interpretation is desired.

6) As mentioned above, I’m rather skeptical about the concept of objectivity and about an all too realist interpretation of statistical models. I think that in Excursion 4 Mayo manages to explain in a clear manner what her claims of “objectivity” actually mean, and she also appreciates more clearly than before the limits of formal models and their distance to “reality”, including some valuable thoughts on what this means for model checking and arguments from models.

So overall it was a very good experience to read her book, and I think that it is a very valuable addition to the literature on foundations of statistics.

Hennig also sent some specific discussion of one part of the book:

1 Introduction

This text discusses parts of Excursion 4 of Mayo (2018) titled “Objectivity and Auditing”. This starts with the section title “The myth of ‘The myth of objectivity’”. Mayo advertises objectivity in science as central and as achievable.

In contrast, in Gelman and Hennig (2017) we write: “We argue that the words ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ in statistics discourse are used in a mostly unhelpful way, and we propose to replace each of them with broader collections of attributes.” I will here outline agreement and disagreement that I have with Mayo’s Excursion 4, and raise some issues that I think require more research and discussion.

2 Pushback and objectivity

The second paragraph of Excursion 4 states in bold letters: “The Key Is Getting Pushback”, and this is the major source of agreement between Mayo’s and my views (*). I call myself a constructivist, and this is about acknowledging the impact of human perception, action, and communication on our world-views, see Hennig (2010). However, it is an almost universal experience that we cannot construct our perceived reality as we wish, because we experience “pushback” from what we perceive as “the world outside”. Science is about allowing us to deal with this pushback in stable ways that are open to consensus. A major ingredient of such science is the “Correspondence (of scientific claims) to observable reality”, and in particular “Clear conditions for reproduction, testing and falsification”, listed as “Virtue 4/4(b)” in Gelman and Hennig (2017). Consequently, there is no disagreement with much of the views and arguments in Excursion 4 (and the rest of the book). I actually believe that there is no contradiction between constructivism understood in this way and Chang’s (2012) “active scientific realism” that asks for action in order to find out about “resistance from reality”, or in other words, experimenting, experiencing and learning from error.

If what is called “objectivity” in Mayo’s book were the generally agreed meaning of the term, I would probably not have a problem with it. However, there is a plethora of meanings of “objectivity” around, and on top of that the term is often used as a sales pitch by scientists in order to lend authority to findings or methods and often even to prevent them from being questioned. Philosophers understand that this is a problem but are mostly eager to claim the term anyway; I have attended conferences on philosophy of science and heard a good number of talks, some better, some worse, with messages of the kind “objectivity as understood by XYZ doesn’t work, but here is my own interpretation that fixes it”. Calling frequentist probabilities “objective” because they refer to the outside world rather than epsitemic states, and calling a Bayesian approach “objective” because priors are chosen by general principles rather than personal beliefs are in isolation also legitimate meanings of “objectivity”, but these two and Mayo’s and many others (see also the Appendix of Gelman and Hennig, 2017) differ. The use of “objectivity” in public and scientific discourse is a big muddle, and I don’t think this will change as a consequence of Mayo’s work. I prefer stating what we want to achieve more precisely using less loaded terms, which I think Mayo has achieved well not by calling her approach “objective” but rather by explaining in detail what she means by that.

3. Trust in models?

In the remainder, I will highlight some limitations of Mayo’s “objectivity” that are mainly connected to Tour IV on objectivity, model checking and whether it makes sense to say that “all models are false”. Error control is central for Mayo’s objectivity, and this relies on error probabilities derived from probability models. If we want to rely on these error probabilities, we need to trust the models, and, very appropriately, Mayo devotes Tour IV to this issue. She concedes that all models are false, but states that this is rather trivial, and what is really relevant when we use statistical models for learning from data is rather whether the models are adequate for the problem we want to solve. Furthermore, model assumptions can be tested and it is crucial to do so, which, as follows from what was stated before, does not mean to test whether they are really true but rather whether they are violated in ways that would destroy the adequacy of the model for the problem. So far I can agree. However, I see some difficulties that are not addressed in the book, and mostly not elsewhere either. Here is a list.

3.1. Adaptation of model checking to the problem of interest

As all models are false, it is not too difficult to find model assumptions that are violated but don’t matter, or at least don’t matter in most situations. The standard example would be the use of continuous distributions to approximate distributions of essentially discrete measurements. What does it mean to say that a violation of a model assumption doesn’t matter? This is not so easy to specify, and not much about this can be found in Mayo’s book or in the general literature. Surely it has to depend on what exactly the problem of interest is. A simple example would be to say that we are interested in statements about the mean of a discrete distribution, and then to show that estimation or tests of the mean are very little affected if a certain continuous approximation is used. This is reassuring, and certain other issues could be dealt with in this way, but one can ask harder questions. If we approximate a slightly skew distribution by a (unimodal) symmetric one, are we really interested in the mean, the median, or the mode, which for a symmetric distribution would be the same but for the skew distribution to be approximated would differ? Any frequentist distribution is an idealisation, so do we first need to show that it is fine to approximate a discrete non-distribution by a discrete distribution before worrying whether the discrete distribution can be approximated by a continuous one? (And how could we show that?) And so on.

3.2. Severity of model misspecification tests

Following the logic of Mayo (2018), misspecification tests need to be severe in ordert to fulfill their purpose; otherwise data could pass a misspecification test that would be of little help ruling out problematic model deviations. I’m not sure whether there are any results of this kind, be it in Mayo’s work or elsewhere. I imagine that if the alternative is parametric (for example testing independence against a standard time series model) severity can occasionally be computed easily, but for most model misspecification tests it will be a hard problem.

3.3. Identifiability issues, and ruling out models by other means than testing

Not all statistical models can be distinguished by data. For example, even with arbitrarily large amounts of data only lower bounds of the number of modes can be estimated; an assumption of unimodality can strictly not be tested (Donoho 1988). Worse, only regular but not general patterns of dependence can be distinguished from independence by data; any non-i.i.d. pattern can be explained by either dependence or non-identity of distributions, and telling these apart requires constraints on dependence and non-identity structures that can itself not be tested on the data (in the example given in 4.11 of Mayo, 2018, all tests discover specific regular alternatives to the model assumption). Given that this is so, the question arises on which grounds we can rule out irregular patterns (about the simplest and most silly one is “observations depend in such a way that every observation determines the next one to be exactly what it was observed to be”) by other means than data inspection and testing. Such models are probably useless, however if they were true, they would destroy any attempt to find “true” or even approximately true error probabilities.

3.4. Robustness against what cannot be ruled out

The above implies that certain deviations from the model assumptions cannot be ruled out, and then one can ask: How robust is the substantial conclusion that is drawn from the data against models different from the nominal one, which could not be ruled out by misspecification testing, and how robust are error probabilities? The approaches of standard robust statistics probably have something to contribute in this respect (e.g., Hampel et al., 1986), although their starting point is usually different from “what is left after misspecification testing”. This will depend, as everything, on the formulation of the “problem of interest”, which needs to be defined not only in terms of the nominal parametric model but also in terms of the other models that could not be rules out.

3.5. The effect of preliminary model checking on model-based inference

Mayo is correctly concerned about biasing effects of model selection on inference. Deciding what model to use based on misspecification tests is some kind of model selection, so it may bias inference that is made in case of passing misspecification tests. One way of stating the problem is to realise that in most cases the assumed model conditionally on having passed a misspecification test does no longer hold. I have called this the “goodness-of-fit paradox” (Hennig, 2007); the issue has been mentioned elsewhere in the literature. Mayo has argued that this is not a problem, and this is in a well defined sense true (meaning that error probabilities derived from the nominal model are not affected by conditioning on passing a misspecification test) if misspecification tests are indeed “independent of (or orthogonal to) the primary question at hand” (Mayo 2018, p. 319). The problem is that for the vast majority of misspecification tests independence/orthogonality does not hold, at least not precisely. So the actual effect of misspecification testing on model-based inference is a matter that requires to be investigated on a case-by-case basis. Some work of this kind has been done or is currently done; results are not always positive (an early example is Easterling and Anderson 1978).

4 Conclusion

The issues listed in Section 3 are in my view important and worthy of investigation. Such investigation has already been done to some extent, but there are many open problems. I believe that some of these can be solved, some are very hard, and some are impossible to solve or may lead to negative results (particularly connected to lack of identifiability). However, I don’t think that these issues invalidate Mayo’s approach and arguments; I expect at least the issues that cannot be solved to affect in one way or another any alternative approach. My case is just that methodology that is “objective” according to Mayo comes with limitations that may be incompatible with some other peoples’ ideas of what “objectivity” should mean (in which sense it is in good company though), and that the falsity of models has some more cumbersome implications than Mayo’s book could make the reader believe.

(*) There is surely a strong connection between what I call “my” view here with the collaborative position in Gelman and Hennig (2017), but as I write the present text on my own, I will refer to “my” position here and let Andrew Gelman speak for himself.

Chang, H. (2012) Is Water H2O? Evidence, Realism and Pluralism. Dordrecht: Springer.

Donoho, D. (1988) One-Sided Inference about Functionals of a Density. Annals of Statistics 16, 1390-1420.

Easterling, R. G. and Anderson, H.E. (1978) The effect of preliminary normality goodness of fit tests on subsequent inference. Journal of Statistical Computation and Simulation 8, 1-11.

Gelman, A. and Hennig, C. (2017) Beyond subjective and objective in statistics (with discussion). Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Series A 180, 967–1033.

Hampel, F. R., Ronchetti, E. M., Rousseeuw, P. J. and Stahel, W. A. (1986) Robust statistics. New York: Wiley.

Hennig, C. (2010) Mathematical models and reality: a constructivist perspective. Foundations of Science 15, 29–48.

Hennig, C. (2007) Falsification of propensity models by statistical tests and the goodness-of-fit paradox. Philosophia Mathematica 15, 166-192.

Mayo, D. G. (2018) Statistical Inference as Severe Testing. Cambridge University Press.

My own reactions

I’m still struggling with the key ideas of Mayo’s book. (Struggling is a good thing here, I think!)

First off, I appreciate that Mayo takes my own philosophical perspective seriously—I’m actually thrilled to be taken seriously, after years of dealing with a professional Bayesian establishment tied to naive (as I see it) philosophies of subjective or objective probabilities, and anti-Bayesians not willing to think seriously about these issues at all—and I don’t think any of these philosophical issues are going to be resolved any time soon. I say this because I’m so aware of the big Cantor-size hole in the corner of my own philosophy of statistical learning.

In statistics—maybe in science more generally—philosophical paradoxes are sometimes resolved by technological advances. Back when I was a student I remember all sorts of agonizing over the philosophical implications of exchangeability, but now that we can routinely fit varying-intercept, varying-slope models with nested and non-nested levels and (we’ve finally realized the importance of) informative priors on hierarchical variance parameters, a lot of the philosophical problems have dissolved; they’ve become surmountable technical problems. (For example: should we consider a group of schools, or states, or hospitals, as “truly exchangeable”? If not, there’s information distinguishing them, and we can include such information as group-level predictors in our multilevel model. Problem solved.)

Rapid technological progress resolves many problems in ways that were never anticipated. (Progress creates new problems too; that’s another story.) I’m not such an expert on deep learning and related methods for inference and prediction—but, again, I think these will change our perspective on statistical philosophy in various ways.

This is all to say that any philosophical perspective is time-bound. On the other hand, I don’t think that Popper/Kuhn/Lakatos will ever be forgotten: this particular trinity of twentieth-century philosophy of science has forever left us in a different place than where we were, a hundred years ago.

To return to Mayo’s larger message: I agree with Hennig that Mayo is correct to place evaluation at the center of statistics.

I’ve thought a lot about this, in many years of teaching statistics to graduate students. In a class for first-year statistics Ph.D. students, you want to get down to the fundamentals.

What’s the most fundamental thing in statistics? Experimental design? No. You can’t really pick your design until you have some sense of how you will analyze the data. (This is the principle of the great Raymond Smullyan: To understand the past, we must first know the future.) So is data analysis the most fundamental thing? Maybe so, but what method of data analysis? Last I heard, there are many schools. Bayesian data analysis, perhaps? Not so clear; what’s the motivation for modeling everything probabilistically? Sure, it’s coherent—but so is some mental patient who thinks he’s Napoleon and acts daily according to that belief. We can back into a more fundamental, or statistical, justification of Bayesian inference and hierarchical modeling by first considering the principle of external validation of predictions, then showing (both empirically and theoretically) that a hierarchical Bayesian approach performs well based on this criterion—and then following up with the Jaynesian point that, when Bayesian inference fails to perform well, this recognition represents additional information that can and should be added to the model. All of this is the theme of the example in section 7 of BDA3—although I have the horrible feeling that students often don’t get the point, as it’s easy to get lost in all the technical details of the inference for the hyperparameters in the model.

Anyway, to continue . . . it still seems to me that the most foundational principles of statistics are frequentist. Not unbiasedness, not p-values, and not type 1 or type 2 errors, but frequency properties nevertheless. Statements about how well your procedure will perform in the future, conditional on some assumptions of stationarity and exchangeability (analogous to the assumption in physics that the laws of nature will be the same in the future as they’ve been in the past—or, if the laws of nature are changing, that they’re not changing very fast! We’re in Cantor’s corner again).

So, I want to separate the principle of frequency evaluation—the idea that frequency evaluation and criticism represents one of the three foundational principles of statistics (with the other two being mathematical modeling and the understanding of variation)—from specific statistical methods, whether they be methods that I like (Bayesian inference, estimates and standard errors, Fourier analysis, lasso, deep learning, etc.) or methods that I suspect have done more harm than good or, at the very least, have been taken too far (hypothesis tests, p-values, so-called exact tests, so-called inverse probability weighting, etc.). We can be frequentists, use mathematical models to solve problems in statistical design and data analysis, and engage in model criticism, without making decisions based on type 1 error probabilities etc.

To say it another way, bringing in the title of the book under discussion: I would not quite say that statistical inference is severe testing, but I do think that severe testing is a crucial part of statistics. I see statistics as an unstable mixture of inference conditional on a model (“normal science”) and model checking (“scientific revolution”). Severe testing is fundamental, in that prospect of revolution is a key contributor to the success of normal science. We lean on our models in large part because they have been, and will continue to be, put to the test. And we choose our statistical methods in large part because, under certain assumptions, they have good frequency properties.

And now on to Mayo’s subtitle. I don’t think her, or my, philosophical perspective will get us “beyond the statistics wars” by itself—but perhaps it will ultimately move us in this direction, if practitioners and theorists alike can move beyond naive confirmationist reasoning toward an embrace of variation and acceptance of uncertainty.

I’ll summarize by expressing agreement with Mayo’s perspective that frequency evaluation is fundamental, while disagreeing with her focus on various crude (from my perspective) ideas such as type 1 errors and p-values. When it comes to statistical philosophy, I’d rather follow Laplace, Jaynes, and Box, rather than Neyman, Wald, and Savage. Phony Bayesmania has bitten the dust.


Let me again thank Haig, Wagenmakers, Owen, Cousins, Young, and Hennig for their discussions. I expect that Mayo will respond to these, and also to any comments that follow in this thread, once she has time to digest it all.


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