Are women three times more likely to wear red or pink when they are most fertile? No, probably not. But here’s how hardworking researchers, prestigious scientific journals, and gullible journalists have been fooled into believing so.
The paper I’ll be talking about appeared online this month in Psychological Science, the flagship journal of the Association for Psychological Science, which represents the serious, research-focused (as opposed to therapeutic) end of the psychology profession. . . .
In focusing on this (literally) colorful example, I don’t mean to be singling out this particular research team for following what are, unfortunately, standard practices in experimental research. Indeed, that this article was published in a leading journal is evidence that its statistical methods were considered acceptable. Statistics textbooks do warn against multiple comparisons, but there is a tendency for researchers to consider any given comparison alone without considering it as one of an ensemble of potentially relevant responses to a research question. And then it is natural for sympathetic journal editors to publish a striking result without getting hung up on what might be viewed as nitpicking technicalities. Each person in this research chain is making a decision that seems scientifically reasonable, but the result is a sort of machine for producing and publicizing random patterns. . . .