Précis of statistical significance: Rationale, validity, and utility

Behavioral and Brain Sciences 21 (2):169-194 (1998)


The null-hypothesis significance-test procedure (NHSTP) is defended in the context of the theory-corroboration experiment, as well as the following contrasts: (a) substantive hypotheses versus statistical hypotheses, (b) theory corroboration versus statistical hypothesis testing, (c) theoretical inference versus statistical decision, (d) experiments versus nonexperimental studies, and (e) theory corroboration versus treatment assessment. The null hypothesis can be true because it is the hypothesis that errors are randomly distributed in data. Moreover, the null hypothesis is never used as a categorical proposition. Statistical significance means only that chance influences can be excluded as an explanation of data; it does not identify the nonchance factor responsible. The experimental conclusion is drawn with the inductive principle underlying the experimental design. A chain of deductive arguments gives rise to the theoretical conclusion via the experimental conclusion. The anomalous relationship between statistical significance and the effect size often used to criticize NHSTP is more apparent than real. The absolute size of the effect is not an index of evidential support for the substantive hypothesis. Nor is the effect size, by itself, informative as to the practical importance of the research result. Being a conditional probability, statistical power cannot be the apriori probability of statistical significance. The validity of statistical power is debatable because statistical significance is determined with a single sampling distribution of the test statistic based on H0, whereas it takes two distributions to represent statistical power or effect size. Sample size should not be determined in the mechanical manner envisaged in power analysis. It is inappropriate to criticize NHSTP for nonstatistical reasons. At the same time, neither effect size, nor confidence interval estimate, nor posterior probability can be used to exclude chance as an explanation of data. Neither can any of them fulfill the nonstatistical functions expected of them by critics

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