The use and misuse of statistical methodologies in pharmacology research

Biochem Pharmacol. 2014 Jan 1;87(1):78-92. doi: 10.1016/j.bcp.2013.05.017. Epub 2013 Jun 4.


Descriptive, exploratory, and inferential statistics are necessary components of hypothesis-driven biomedical research. Despite the ubiquitous need for these tools, the emphasis on statistical methods in pharmacology has become dominated by inferential methods often chosen more by the availability of user-friendly software than by any understanding of the data set or the critical assumptions of the statistical tests. Such frank misuse of statistical methodology and the quest to reach the mystical α<0.05 criteria has hampered research via the publication of incorrect analysis driven by rudimentary statistical training. Perhaps more critically, a poor understanding of statistical tools limits the conclusions that may be drawn from a study by divorcing the investigator from their own data. The net result is a decrease in quality and confidence in research findings, fueling recent controversies over the reproducibility of high profile findings and effects that appear to diminish over time. The recent development of "omics" approaches leading to the production of massive higher dimensional data sets has amplified these issues making it clear that new approaches are needed to appropriately and effectively mine this type of data. Unfortunately, statistical education in the field has not kept pace. This commentary provides a foundation for an intuitive understanding of statistics that fosters an exploratory approach and an appreciation for the assumptions of various statistical tests that hopefully will increase the correct use of statistics, the application of exploratory data analysis, and the use of statistical study design, with the goal of increasing reproducibility and confidence in the literature.

Keywords: Exploratory data analysis; Non-parametric; Parametric; Power analysis; Statistical design.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomedical Research / standards
  • Biomedical Research / statistics & numerical data*
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical*
  • Humans
  • Pharmacology / standards
  • Pharmacology / statistics & numerical data*
  • Research Design / standards