Statistical Deontology

In courtrooms across America, there has been a lot of buzzing and palavering about the American Statistical Association’s Statement on Statistical Significance Testing,1 but very little discussion of the Society’s Ethical Guidelines, which were updated and promulgated in the same year, 2016. Statisticians and statistics, like lawyers and the law, receive their fair share of calumny over their professional activities, but the statistician’s principal North American professional organization is trying to do something about members’ transgressions.

The American Statistical Society (ASA) has promulgated ethical guidelines for statisticians, as has the Royal Statistical Society,2 even if these organizations lack the means and procedures to enforce their codes. The ASA’s guidelines3 are rich with implications for statistical analyses put forward in all contexts, including in litigation and regulatory rule making. As such, the guidelines are well worth studying by lawyers.

The ASA Guidelines were prepared by the Committee on Professional Ethics, and approved by the ASA’s Board in April 2016. There are lots of “thou shall” and “thou shall nots,” but I will focus on the issues that are more likely to arise in litigation. What is remarkable about the Guidelines is that if followed, they probably are more likely to eliminate unsound statistical practices in the courtroom than the ASA State on P-values.

Defining Good Statistical Practice

Good statistical practice is fundamentally based on transparent assumptions, reproducible results, and valid interpretations.” Guidelines at 1. The Guidelines thus incorporate something akin to the Kumho Tire standard that an expert witness ‘‘employs in the courtroom the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an expert in the relevant field.’’ Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 152 (1999).

A statistician engaged in expert witness testimony should provide “only expert testimony, written work, and oral presentations that he/she would be willing to have peer reviewed.” Guidelines at 2. “The ethical statistician uses methodology and data that are relevant and appropriate, without favoritism or prejudice, and in a manner intended to produce valid, interpretable, and reproducible results.” Id. Similarly, the statistician, if ethical, will identify and mitigate biases, and use analyses “appropriate and valid for the specific question to be addressed, so that results extend beyond the sample to a population relevant to the objectives with minimal error under reasonable assumptions.” Id. If the Guidelines were followed, a lot of spurious analyses would drop off the litigation landscape, regardless whether they used p-values or confidence intervals, or a Bayesian approach.

Integrity of Data and Methods

The ASA’s Guidelines also have a good deal to say about data integrity and statistical methods. In particular, the Guidelines call for candor about limitations in the statistical methods or the integrity of the underlying data:

The ethical statistician is candid about any known or suspected limitations, defects, or biases in the data that may impact the integrity or reliability of the statistical analysis. Objective and valid interpretation of the results requires that the underlying analysis recognizes and acknowledges the degree of reliability and integrity of the data.”

Guidelines at 3.

The statistical analyst openly acknowledges the limits of statistical inference, the potential sources of error, as well as the statistical and substantive assumptions made in the execution and interpretation of any analysis,” including data editing and imputation. Id. The Guidelines urge analysts to address potential confounding not assessed by the study design. Id. at 3, 10. How often do we see these acknowledgments in litigation-driven analyses, or in peer-reviewed papers, for that matter?

Affirmative Actions Prescribed

In the aid of promoting data and methodological integrity, the Guidelines also urge analysts to share data when appropriate without revealing the identities of study participants. Statistical analysts should publicly correct any disseminated data and analyses in their own work, as well as working to “expose incompetent or corrupt statistical practice.” Of course, the Lawsuit Industry will call this ethical duty “attacking the messenger,” but maybe that’s a rhetorical strategy based upon an assessment of risks versus benefits to the Lawsuit Industry.


The ASA Guidelines address the impropriety of substantive statistical errors, such as:

[r]unning multiple tests on the same data set at the same stage of an analysis increases the chance of obtaining at least one invalid result. Selecting the one “significant” result from a multiplicity of parallel tests poses a grave risk of an incorrect conclusion. Failure to disclose the full extent of tests and their results in such a case would be highly misleading.”

Guidelines at 9.

There are some Lawsuit Industrialists who have taken comfort in the pronouncements of Kenneth Rothman on corrections for multiple comparisons. Rothman’s views on multiple comparisons are, however, much broader and more nuanced than the Industry’s sound bites.4 Given that Rothman opposes anything like strict statistical significance testing, it follows that he is relatively unmoved for the need for adjustments to alpha or the coefficient of confidence. Rothman, however, has never deprecated the need to consider the multiplicity of testing, and the need for researchers to be forthright in disclosing the the scope of comparisons originally planned and actually done.

2 Royal Statistical Society – Code of Conduct (2014); Steven Piantadosi, Clinical Trials: A Methodologic Perspective 609 (2d ed. 2005).

3 Shelley Hurwitz & John S. Gardenier, “Ethical Guidelines for Statistical Practice: The First 60 Years and Beyond,” 66 Am. Statistician 99 (2012) (describing the history and evolution of the Guidelines).

4 Kenneth J. Rothman, “Six Persistent Research Misconceptions,” 29 J. Gen. Intern. Med. 1060, 1063 (2014).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments are closed.