I spoke (remotely) recently at the University of Wisconsin, on the topic of ethics and statistics. Afterward, I received the following question from Fabrizzio Sanchez:
As hard as it is to do, I thought it was good to try and define what exactly makes for an ethical violation. Your third point noted that it needed to break some sort of rule. Could you elaborate on this idea in the context of statistical rules? From my understanding, most statistical rules are not 0 or 1, but somewhere in between. (Removing an outlier comes to mind as an example).
He was responding to my statement that “An ethics problem arises when you are considering an action that (a) benefits you or some cause you support, (b) hurts or reduces benefits to others, and (c) violates some rule.”
I thought the bit about violating a rule was necessary because it’s generally considered acceptable to try to get more for yourself, if you’re doing so within the context of an accepted set of rules. Here I wasn’t thinking so much of statistical rules (for example, the idea that for statistical significance you need p=0.05 not p=0.06) but rather social rules. But maybe there’s more to be said on this.
The big new idea in my talk (which, unfortunately, I didn’t get to during the 20 minutes that were allocated to me) is near the end of the presentation, when I suggest that mainstream statistical methods (Bayes included) can themselves be unethical. Maybe this will the subject of a future Chance column.
P.S. One difficulty in posting slides is that they can be misleading without the accompanying speech. In particular, near the end of the slides I show the notorious third-degree polynomial regression discontinuity fit, under the headline, “Find the ethical problem!” Just to be clear, let me explain that I think the ethical problem here is not with the people who did the analysis and made the graph; rather, I think the ethical problem arises in our scientific publication system itself, which rewards dramatic claims based on statistical significance and dis-incentivizes more realistic, sober assessment of evidence. Also contributing to the ethical problem has been the publication of papers recommending something as goofy as this sort of high-degree polynomial fit.