mostly data science, statistics and applications.

How Statisticians Lost Their Business Mojo

| Comments

The manufacturers of Japan will tell you of W. Edwards Deming. His famous 1950s lectures in Japan popularized quality control and continuous improvement. Six sigma strategy is born out of Deming’s vision.

Consider when you drink your Guiness beer, world reknown, that it’s recipe was perfected by a statistician, W. S. Gosset. (He created the t-distribution in 1909 to do this).

These statisticians had an amazing sense of business mojo.

Since the 1960s, we [statisticians] have lost this mojo. And the reason is that they’ve followed R.A. Fisher’s significance testing orthodoxy without question. Fisher created the p-value we know today and many think of as synonymous with statistics. P-value measures precision, not effect size. That’s it, that’s why our business mojo is gone. P-values are the gate keeper to academic publication, NOT effect sizes.

Effect size is “oomph”, “mojo”, “level of profit”, “return on investment.” Yet statistician’s obsession with the p-value and precision alone leads to hilariously inept results.

Take this extract from a leading journal of management science,

Our first hypothesis suggested that visionary leadership was related to higher
levels of internal and external cooperation. We used two measures to represent
internal and external cooperation, quality philosophy and supplier cooperation.
Top management team involvement, our measure of visionary leadership, was
significantly related to both quality philosophy (t = 10.80, p < .001) and
supplier involvement (t = 7.59, p < .001). Therefore, Hypothesis I is supported.

Thomas J. Douglas and Lawrence D. Fredendall Decision Sciences 35 (3 Summer 2004)

Notice that there’s zero mention of effect size? Just that the p-values are less than 0.05. Ironically this article is titled, “Evaluating the Deming Management Model of Total Quality in Services.” So how much did Deming’s model contribute to internal and external cooperation? The authors never say. They technically report it in one table, but never mention it as a conclusion of worth.

This is what Deming says about significance testing,

Ther are many other books on so-called quality control [Deming wrote]. Each
book has something good in it, and nearly every author is a friend and colleague
of mine. Most of the books nevertheless contain bear traps, such as reject
limits, … areas under the normal curve, acceptance sampling … The student
should also avoid passages in books that treat confidence intervals and tests of
significance, as such calculations have no application in analytic problems in science and industry.

So how can statisticians get their business mojo back?

As Stephen T. Ziliak and Deirdre McCloskey note, “Deming himself asked of any service or product how in the eyes of the user it could be improved. No matter.”

Fisher (p-value inventor) was very much against using measures of productivity, profit, reliability, etc. in science. He states the difference,

I am casting no contempt on acceptance procedures [read effect size, read profit, revenue, cost reduction], and I am thankful, whenever I travel by air, that the high level of precision and reliability required can really be achieved by such means. But the logical differences between such an operation and the work of scientific discovery by physical or biological experimentation seem to me so wide that the analogy between them is not helpful, and the identification of the two sorts of operation is decidedly misleading.

So Fisher is very quietly telling us, yes, my methods are not for business. They’re for science. The massive implications of that for past research aside, what can we replace Fisher’s methods with?

We want to apply newer more sophisticated methods that respect effect sizes, and will lead us to large gains for the company. If we have to go back over the mechanism with Fisherian testing to enhance precision, fine. Search for large effects first as Deming’s philosophy suggests.

We should also listen to Leo Brieman when he suggests, “we can move away from exclusive dependence on data models and adopt a more diverse set of tools.” In his seminal,“Statistical Modeling: The Two Cultures,” he proposes statisticians be humble in the face of problems. Refrain from imposing linearity and variable selection by tests of significance (p-values). Instead minimize rates of error in held out test set data using a training set. This opens up a HUGE new space to do analysis, all without p-values! Non-parametric methods like random-forest, SVM, boosting, bagging, sophisticated loss functions (read maximizing revenue with respect to minimizing cost, profit!).

There are other methods, too, such as Bayesian inference. These methods are really great for giving you degrees of a belief in a hypothesis. If you’re working on marketing problems, like I am, then you know pretty well ahead of time what to expect in terms of a conversion rate. And if you use Chi-square or t-tests to choose winners, you know that your experiments commonly require 200k plus participants to achieve statistical significance (p-value < .05) even for a 20% increase in conversion rate. Fishers methods are much much too coarse for web app startup companies. Instead, we’re more accepting of Type 1 error, which for us is that a marketing campaign under performs. We are also looking for ostensibly the best user experience possible, or increase in profit, something meaninful in effect size: a game changer. Amazingly, Fisher will miss these game changers. Bayes methods allow us to use our prior knowledge that conversion rates range between 1 – 5% (and follow a beta distribution) to get much more sensitive tools.


  1. Don’t use p-values and significance testing in business.
  2. Use algoritmic methods that minimize or maximize something that matters to you.
  3. Focus on the effect size (Deming). Let’s be certain of having a meaningful effect on our customer’s experience, not just certainty about some effect regardless of of the size (Fisher).

Who am I to critize 70+ years of statistical application? I’m a data scientist, a business statistician who tried to use Fisherian methods in business. I have quickly learned that they’re nearly useless here. Instead, there’s a whole new set of useful tools that open up to the business analyst that realizes significance testing is nearly worthless. We’ll no longer be plagued with a lack of observations. W.S. Gosset was able to improve Guinness beer sometimes 3 obsevations at a time. No longer will the practicioners (marketers, management, stakeholders) scratch their head when you come back with a 30% a/b test lift and a p-value of 0.60. Neither will they be fluxomed when you say, “look, the p-value is less than .05, we have a relationship here!” So, what? If you are very certain that you convert 2 more users out of 1 billion clicks, who cares? What Deming, Gossett, and now myself are looking for are large effect sizes, even if they vary!

I have to give huge thanks to Stephen T. Ziliak and Deirdre N. McCloskey for nurturing my thoughts in this area, who’s book, “The Cult of Statistical Significance” should revolutionize scientific statistical application, even if it fails to do so like those before those authors.