The other end of the telescope

Introduction

The standard approach to teaching (and thus thinking about) statistics is based on projecting distributions of ranges of expected values. The distribution of an expected value is a set of probabilities that predict what the value will be, according to a mathematical model of what you predict should happen.

For the experimentalist, this distribution is the imaginary distribution of very many repetitions of the same experiment that you may have just undertaken. It is the output of a mathematical model.

  • Note that this idea of a projected distribution is not the same as the term ‘expected distribution’. An expected distribution is a series of values you predict your data should match.
  • Thus in what follows we simply compare a single expected value P with an observed value p. This can be thought of as comparing the expected distribution E = {P, 1 – P} with the observed distribution O = {p, 1 – p}.

Thinking about this projected distribution represents a colossal feat of imagination: it is a projection of what you think would happen if only you had world enough and time to repeat your experiment, again and again. But often you can’t get more data. Perhaps the effort to collect your data was huge, or the data is from a finite set of available data (historical documents, patients with a rare condition, etc.). Actual replication may be impossible for material reasons.

In general, distributions of this kind are extremely hard to imagine, because they are not part of our directly-observed experience. See Why is statistics difficult? for more on this. So we already have an uphill task in getting to grips with this kind of reasoning.

Significant difference (often shortened to ‘significance’) refers to the difference between your observations (the ‘observed distribution’) and what you expect to see (the expected distribution). But to evaluate whether a numerical difference is significant, we have to take into account both the shape and spread of this projected distribution of expected values.

When you select a statistical test you do two things:

  • you choose a mathematical model which projects a distribution of possible values, and
  • you choose a way of calculating significant difference.

The problem is that in many cases it is very difficult to imagine this projected distribution, or — which amounts to the same thing — the implications of the statistical model.

When tests are selected, the main criterion you have to consider concerns the type of data being analysed (an ‘ordinal scale’, a ‘categorical scale’, a ‘ratio scale’, and so on). But the scale of measurement is only one of several parameters that allows us to predict how random selection might affect the resampling of data.

A mathematical model contains what are usually called assumptions, although it might be more accurate to call them ‘preconditions’ or parameters. If these assumptions about your data are incorrect, the test is likely to give an inaccurate result. This principle is not either/or, but can be thought of as a scale of ‘degradation’. The less the data conforms to these assumptions, the more likely your test is to give the wrong answer.

This is particularly problematic in some computational applications. The programmer could not imagine the projected distribution, so they tweaked various parameters until the program ‘worked’. In a ‘black-box’ algorithm this might not matter. If it appears to work, who cares if the algorithm is not very principled? Performance might be less than optimal, but it may still produce valuable and interesting results.

But in science there really should be no such excuse.

The question I have been asking myself for the last ten years or so is simply can we do better? Is there a better way to teach (and think about) statistics than from the perspective of distributions projected by counter-intuitive mathematical models (taken on trust) and significant tests? Continue reading

The replication crisis: what does it mean for corpus linguistics?

 

Introduction

Over the last year, the field of psychology has been rocked by a major public dispute about statistics. This concerns the failure of claims in papers, published in top psychological journals, to replicate.

Replication is a big deal: if you publish a correlation between variable X and variable Y – that there is an increase in the use of the progressive over time, say, and that increase is statistically significant, you expect that this finding would be replicated were the experiment repeated.

I would strongly recommend Andrew Gelman’s brief history of the developing crisis in psychology. It is not necessary to agree with everything he says (personally, I find little to disagree with, although his argument is challenging) to recognise that he describes a serious problem here.

There may be more than one reason why published studies have failed to obtain compatible results on repetition, and so it is worth sifting these out.

In this blog post, what I want to do is try to explore what this replication crisis is – is it one problem, or several? – and then turn to what solutions might be available and what the implications are for corpus linguistics. Continue reading