Scientists have difficulty explaining p-values

Scientists regularly use p-values to evaluate their findings but apparently have difficulty explain exactly what they mean:

To be clear, everyone I spoke with at METRICS could tell me the technical definition of a p-value — the probability of getting results at least as extreme as the ones you observed, given that the null hypothesis is correct — but almost no one could translate that into something easy to understand.

It’s not their fault, said Steven Goodman, co-director of METRICS. Even after spending his “entire career” thinking about p-values, he said he could tell me the definition, “but I cannot tell you what it means, and almost nobody can.” Scientists regularly get it wrong, and so do most textbooks, he said. When Goodman speaks to large audiences of scientists, he often presents correct and incorrect definitions of the p-value, and they “very confidently” raise their hand for the wrong answer. “Almost all of them think it gives some direct information about how likely they are to be wrong, and that’s definitely not what a p-value does,” Goodman said.

We want to know if results are right, but a p-value doesn’t measure that. It can’t tell you the magnitude of an effect, the strength of the evidence or the probability that the finding was the result of chance.

So what information can you glean from a p-value? The most straightforward explanation I found came from Stuart Buck, vice president of research integrity at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Imagine, he said, that you have a coin that you suspect is weighted toward heads. (Your null hypothesis is then that the coin is fair.) You flip it 100 times and get more heads than tails. The p-value won’t tell you whether the coin is fair, but it will tell you the probability that you’d get at least as many heads as you did if the coin was fair. That’s it — nothing more. And that’s about as simple as I can make it, which means I’ve probably oversimplified it and will soon receive exasperated messages from statisticians telling me so.

Complicated but necessary? This can lead to fun situations when teaching statistics: students need to know enough to do the statistical work and evaluate findings (we at least need to know what to do with a calculated p-value, even if we don’t quite understand what it means) but explaining the complexity of some of these techniques wouldn’t necessarily help the learning process. In fact, the more you learn about statistics, you tend to find that the various methods and techniques have limitations even as they can help us better understand phenomena.

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