Is There a Free Lunch in Inference?

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The field of psychology, including cognitive science, is vexed by a crisis of confidence. Although the causes and solutions are varied, we focus here on a common logical problem in inference. The default mode of inference is significance testing, which has a free lunch property where researchers need not make detailed assumptions about the alternative to test the null hypothesis. We present the argument that there is no free lunch; that is, valid testing requires that researchers test the null against a well-specified alternative. We show how this requirement follows from the basic tenets of conventional and Bayesian probability. Moreover, we show in both the conventional and Bayesian framework that not specifying the alternative may lead to rejections of the null hypothesis with scant evidence. We review both frequentist and Bayesian approaches to specifying alternatives, and we show how such specifications improve inference. The field of cognitive science will benefit because consideration of reasonable alternatives will undoubtedly sharpen the intellectual underpinnings of research.

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Type of resources: Primary Source, Reading

Education level(s): College / Upper Division (Undergraduates)

Primary user(s): Student

Subject area(s): Math & Statistics, Social Science

Language(s): English