Read: The Cult of Statistical Significance

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I think my first “contact” with Deirdre McCloskey was when I got seriously interested in scientific writing and in particular in how to improve my writing. I read her Economical Writing at about the same time as Strunk & White’s The Element of Style. That must have been during the middle or shortly before finishing my PhD. Yes, that late. The Rhetoric of Economics followed very soon. Here I got a first glimpse at her battle against the evil p-value and the misuse of statistics. I have to admit even though I agree with her main critique I do not follow all her advice — I think that is one of the big problems she sees in empirical economists. They agree but still do otherwise. I also had the good luck to meet Gerd Gigerenzer, a psychologist and fellow warrior against the misuse of statistics, and discuss this particular topic with him during a sociable evening after a long day full of presentations at a remote conference venue of the Max Planck Society. Yes, there is something wrong with our (that is the economist’s) way of relying on, reporting, and interpreting statistics and specifically statistical significance.

How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives is not only the subtitle of Ziliak and McCloskey’s manifesto The Cult of Statistical Significance it is quite indicative of their (strong) rhetoric.

The book can be roughly divided in two parts that are devoted to different “themes”. The first is an updated and extended rehash of their earlier articles on the current practice of relying on statistical significance in various fields. If you have not read their articles so far read this and be shocked. You will see the author’s outrage in every paragraph. The second part and theme is a historical account that tries to shed light on how we ended up where we are. This part is rather filled with bitterness and repugnance for R. A. Fisher and compassion for the neglected Mr. Student, William Sealy Gosset.

Ziliak and McCloskey’s rhetoric is unique, yet it is not always to their benefit. Though, they certainly make their point and at least in private you have to agree with them. All in all, the book is entertaining and instructive. Even so, I would not assign this book to a class for reading I would rather recommend the 2004 special issue of the Journal of Socio-Economics on this topic. On the other hand, every empirical scientist and every policy maker relying on scientific research (shouldn’t they all?) should be aware that, first, size matters and that precision of measurement should not be the only decision criteria.