Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Statistician's Error?

I just attended (and gave a talk at) the United States Conference on Teaching Statistics (USCOTS). Big thanks to Allan Rossman, who brilliantly MC-ed the conference.

• One keynote was about "moving beyond p < .05" in a talk by Ron Wasserstein and Allen Schirm, In their recent editorial in The American Statistician (with Nicole Lazar), a primary recommendation was Don't Say "Statistically Significant". Decisions with p values are about controlling error rates, but dichotomous decisions let people slip into "bright line" thinking wherein p < .05 means real and important and p > .05 means absent and unimportant.

• Another keynote, in a talk by Kari Lock Morgan, was about three possible explanations of an apparent effect of a manipulation, namely (i) genuine cause, (ii) random difference at baseline before manipulation, and (iii) random difference after manipulation.

I returned home from the conference this morning. To relax, after the intensive pre-conference preparation and during-conference insomnia, I opened a book of poetry and came across a poem by Aaron Fogel that (inadvertently) reflects upon both talks. It's a poem about how editors of printing make decisions regarding errors, and about three sources or errors, and distinguishing the sources of error. And about the role of editors (and perhaps of statisticians?).

The Printer's Error
Fellow compositors
and pressworkers!
I, Chief Printer
Frank Steinman,
having worked fifty-
seven years at my trade,
and served five years
as president
of the Holliston
Printer's Council,
being of sound mind
though near death,
leave this testimonial
concerning the nature
of printers' errors.
First: I hold that all books
and all printed
matter have
errors, obvious or no,
and that these are their
most significant moments,
not to be tampered with
by the vanity and folly
of ignorant, academic
textual editors.
Second: I hold that there are
three types of errors, in ascending
order of importance:
One: chance errors
of the printer's trembling hand
not to be corrected incautiously
by foolish professors
and other such rabble
because trembling is part
of divine creation itself.
Two: silent, cool sabotage
by the printer,
the manual laborer
whose protests
have at times taken this
historical form,
covert interferences
not to be corrected
censoriously by the hand
of the second and far
more ignorant saboteur,
the textual editor.
Three: errors
from the touch of God,
divine and often
obscure corrections
of whole books by
nearly unnoticed changes
of single letters
sometimes meaningful but
about which the less said
by preemptive commentary
the better.
Third: I hold that all three
sorts of error,
errors by chance,
errors by workers' protest,
and errors by
God's touch,
are in practice the
same and indistinguishable.
Therefore I,
Frank Steinman,
for thirty-seven years,
and cooperative Master
of the Holliston Guild
eight years,
being of sound mind and body
though near death
urge the abolition
of all editorial work
and manumission
from all textual editing
to leave what was
as it was, and
as it became,
except insofar as editing
is itself an error, and
therefore also divine.