Surrogate Science: The Idol of a Universal Method for Scientific Inference

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The application of statistics to science is not a neutral act. Statistical tools have shaped and were also shaped by its objects. In the social sciences, statistical methods fundamentally changed research practice, making statistical inference its centerpiece. At the same time, textbook writers in the social sciences have transformed rivaling statistical systems into an apparently monolithic method that could be used mechanically. The idol of a universal method for scientific inference has been worshipped since the “inference revolution” of the 1950s. Because no such method has ever been found, surrogates have been created, most notably the quest for significant p values. This form of surrogate science fosters delusions and borderline cheating and has done much harm, creating, for one, a flood of irreproducible results. Proponents of the “Bayesian revolution” should be wary of chasing yet another chimera: an apparently universal inference procedure. A better path would be to promote both an understanding of the various devices in the “statistical toolbox” and informed judgment to select among these.

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Type of resources: Primary Source, Reading

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

Primary user(s): Student

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

Language(s): English