# The 20% Statistician

A blog on statistics, methods, philosophy of science, and open science. Understanding 20% of statistics will improve 80% of your inferences.

## Wednesday, January 1, 2020

### Observed Type 1 Error Rates (Why Statistical Models are Not Reality)

“In the long run we are all dead.” - John Maynard Keynes

When we perform hypothesis tests in a Neyman-Pearson framework we want to make decisions while controlling the rate at which we make errors. We do this in part by setting an alpha level that guarantees we will not say there is an effect when there is no effect more than α% of the time, in the long run.

I like my statistics applied. And in practice I don’t do an infinite number of studies. As Keynes astutely observed, I will be dead before then. So when I control the error rate for my studies, what is a realistic Type 1 error rate I will observe in the ‘somewhat longer run’?

Let’s assume you publish a paper that contains only a single p-value. Let’s also assume the true effect size is 0, so the null hypothesis is true. Your test will return a p-value smaller than your alpha level (and this would be a Type 1 error) or not. With a single study, you don’t have the granularity to talk about a 5% error rate.

In experimental psychology 30 seems to be a reasonable average for the number of p-values that are reported in a single paper (http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0127872). Let’s assume you perform 30 tests in a single paper and every time the null is true (even though this is often unlikely in a real paper). In the long run, with an alpha level of 0.05 we can expect that 30 * 0.05 = 1.5 p-values will be significant. But in real sets of 30 p-values there is no half of a p-value, so you will either observe 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or even more Type 1 errors, which equals 0%, 3.33%, 6.66%, 10%, 13.33%, 16.66%, or even more. We can plot the frequency of Type 1 error rates for 1 million sets of 30 tests.

Each of these error rates occurs with a certain frequency. 21.5% of the time, you will not make any Type 1 errors. 12.7% of the time, you will make 3 Type 1 errors in 30 tests. The average over thousands of papers reporting 30 tests will be a Type 1 error rate of 5%, but no single set of studies is average.

Now maybe a single paper with 30 tests is not ‘long runnerish’ enough. What we really want to control the Type 1 error rate of is the literature, past, present, and future. Except, we will never read the literature. So let’s assume we are interested in a meta-analysis worth of 200 studies that examine a topic where the true effect size is 0 for each test. We can plot the frequency of Type 1 error rates for 1 million sets of 200 tests.

Now things start to look a bit more like what you would expect. The Type 1 error rate you will observe in your set of 200 tests is close to 5%. However, it is almost exactly as likely that the observed Type 1 error rate is 4.5%. 90% of the distribution of observed alpha levels will lie between 0.025 and 0.075. So, even in ‘somewhat longrunnish’ 200 tests, the observed Type 1 error rate will rarely be exactly 5%, and it might be more useful to think about it as being between 2.5 and 7.5%.

### Statistical models are not reality.

A 5% error rate exists only in the abstract world of infinite repetitions, and you will not live long enough to perform an infinite number of studies. In practice, if you (or a group of researchers examining a specific question) do real research, the error rates are somewhere in the range of 5%. Everything has variation in samples drawn from a larger population - error rates are no exception.

When we quantify things, there is the tendency to get lost in digits. But in practice, the levels of random noise we can reasonable expect quickly overwhelms everything at least 3 digits after the decimal. I know we can compute the alpha level after a Pocock correction for two looks at the data in sequential analyses as 0.0294. But this is not the level of granularity that we should have in mind when we think of the error rate we will observe in real lines of research. When we control our error rates, we do so with the goal to end up somewhere reasonably low, after a decent number of hypotheses have been tested. Whether we end up observing 2.5% Type 1 errors or 7.5% errors: Potato, patato.

This does not mean we should stop quantifying numbers precisely when they can be quantified precisely, but we should realize what we get from the statistical procedures we use. We don't get a 5% Type 1 error rate in any real set of studies we will actually perform. Statistical inferences guide us roughly to where we would ideally like to end up. By all means calculate exact numbers where you can. Strictly adhere to hard thresholds to prevent you from fooling yourself too often. But maybe in 2020 we can learn to appreciate statistical inferences are always a bit messy. Do the best you reasonably can, but don’t expect perfection. In 2020, and in statistics.

For a related paper on alpha levels that in practical situations can not be 5%, see https://psyarxiv.com/erwvk/ by Casper Albers.