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Comments on two possible objections

My experience with peer reviews of previous related papers [1, 2], as well as published [3] and private correspondence about them, suggests that some readers may be quick to dismiss the case presented here because of perceived mistakes, poorly-thought-out counterarguments, or anticipated negative consequences of departures from current conventions. I comment here on two possible objections that seem particularly important, although this may only be a start on the objections that readers may formulate.

An initial reading of the threshold myth subsection may leave the impression that rejecting the myth depends on rejecting the established p-value threshold of 0.05, but this is not the case. I realize that the conventional p<0.05 threshold is widely accepted (despite controversy [4-6]), and most researchers have seen situations where a completed study just misses this and the investigators believe that a few more subjects would have resulted in "success" (i.e., p<0.05). This may seem like being on the wrong side of the threshold shown in Figure 1, but it does not imply that any threshold exists in a study's projected value when it is being planned. Indeed, a mathematical argument has previously shown that rigidly accepting the p=0.05 threshold leads to projected value being determined by power [1], which has the shape shown by the solid line, not the mythical dashed line. Acceptance of the p=0.05 threshold therefore contradicts the existence of a threshold in pre-study projected value.

The design-use mismatch underlies an argument frequently used to support a requirement for high power: that p<0.05 in a study with low power is only weak evidence against the null hypothesis, because lower power implies that a higher proportion of p<0.05 results are type I errors (the null hypothesis is actually true) [7, 8]. This argument relies on using only the information that p<0.05, which would be a huge waste of a study's other information if we were really concerned with evidence about the issue being studied; only in an automatic decision-making context would we ignore estimates and exact p-values. Examining the actual p-value obtained produces a different picture--a given p-value from a larger study indicates weaker evidence against the null hypothesis than the same p-value from a smaller study [9]. In the pure automatic decision-making context, sample size does not influence the rate or consequences of type I errors [10]; only type II errors are affected, and the influence of sample size on projected value has diminishing marginal returns as illustrated in Figure 1 [1].


1. Bacchetti P, McCulloch CE, Segal MR: Simple, defensible sample sizes based on cost efficiency. Biometrics 2008, 64:577-585.

2. Bacchetti P, Wolf LE, Segal MR, McCulloch CE: Ethics and sample size. American Journal of Epidemiology 2005, 161:105-110.

3. Halpern SD, Karlawish JHT, Berlin JA: Re: "Ethics and sample size". American Journal of Epidemiology 2005, 162:195-196.

4. Armstrong JS: Significance tests harm progress in forecasting. Int J Forecast 2007, 23:321-327.

5. Cohen J: The Earth is Round (p < .05). American Psychologist 1994, 49:997-1003.

6. Goodman SN: Toward evidence-based medical statistics. 1: The P value fallacy. Annals of Internal Medicine 1999, 130:995-1004.

7. O'Brien R: Webinar 4: Classical sample-size analysis for hypothesis testing (Part II). http://www.biopharmnet.com/doc/doc03002-05.html 2009, accessed January 31, 2010.

8. Peto R, Pike MC, Armitage P, Breslow NE, Cox DR, Howard SV, Mantel N, McPherson? K, Peto J, Smith PG: Design and analysis of Randomized clinical-trials requiring prolonged observation of each patient .1. Introduction and design. British Journal of Cancer 1976, 34:585-612.

9. Royall RM: The effect of sample-size on the meaning of significance tests. American Statistician 1986, 40:313-315.

10. Bacchetti P, McCulloch CE, Segal MR: Simple, defensible sample sizes based on cost efficiency - Rejoinder. Biometrics 2008, 64:592-594.

-- PeterBacchetti - 08 Jan 2012

Topic revision: r1 - 08 Jan 2012 - 17:02:52 - PeterBacchetti

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