Invited Commentary: The Need for Cognitive Science in Methodology

Am J Epidemiol. 2017 Sep 15;186(6):639-645. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwx259.


There is no complete solution for the problem of abuse of statistics, but methodological training needs to cover cognitive biases and other psychosocial factors affecting inferences. The present paper discusses 3 common cognitive distortions: 1) dichotomania, the compulsion to perceive quantities as dichotomous even when dichotomization is unnecessary and misleading, as in inferences based on whether a P value is "statistically significant"; 2) nullism, the tendency to privilege the hypothesis of no difference or no effect when there is no scientific basis for doing so, as when testing only the null hypothesis; and 3) statistical reification, treating hypothetical data distributions and statistical models as if they reflect known physical laws rather than speculative assumptions for thought experiments. As commonly misused, null-hypothesis significance testing combines these cognitive problems to produce highly distorted interpretation and reporting of study results. Interval estimation has so far proven to be an inadequate solution because it involves dichotomization, an avenue for nullism. Sensitivity and bias analyses have been proposed to address reproducibility problems (Am J Epidemiol. 2017;186(6):646-647); these methods can indeed address reification, but they can also introduce new distortions via misleading specifications for bias parameters. P values can be reframed to lessen distortions by presenting them without reference to a cutoff, providing them for relevant alternatives to the null, and recognizing their dependence on all assumptions used in their computation; they nonetheless require rescaling for measuring evidence. I conclude that methodological development and training should go beyond coverage of mechanistic biases (e.g., confounding, selection bias, measurement error) to cover distortions of conclusions produced by statistical methods and psychosocial forces.

Keywords: behavioral economics; bias analysis; cognitive bias; motivated reasoning; nullism; overconfidence; sensitivity analysis; significance testing.

Publication types

  • Comment

MeSH terms

  • Cognitive Science
  • Humans
  • Models, Statistical*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Research Design
  • Selection Bias*