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Do We Really Need the S-word?

The use of “significance” in reporting statistical results is fraught with problems—but they could be solved with a simple change in practice

Megan D. Higgs

Case Studies in Unsignificance

Curious about the impact a ban on the s-word might have, three years ago I began banning the word from my two-semester Methods of Data Analysis course, which is taken primarily by nonstatistics graduate students. My motivation was to force students to justify and defend the statements they used to summarize results of a statistical analysis. In previous semesters I had noticed students using the s-word as a mask, an easily inserted word to replace the justification of assumptions and difficult decisions, such as arbitrary cutoffs. My students were following the example dominant in published research—perpetuating the false dichotomy of calling statistical results either significant or not and, in doing so, failing to acknowledge the vast and important area between the two extremes. The ban on the s-word seems to have left my students with fewer ways to skirt the difficult task of effective justification, forcing them to confront the more subtle issues inherent in statistical inference.

An unexpected realization I had was just how ingrained the word already was in the brains of even first-year graduate students. At first I merely suggested—over and over again—that students avoid using the word. When suggestion proved not to be enough, I evinced more motivation by taking off precious points at the sight of the word. To my surprise, it still appears, and students later say they didn’t even realize they had used it! Even though using this s-word doesn’t carry the possible consequence of having one’s mouth washed out with soap, I continue to witness the clasp of hands over the mouth as the first syllable tries to sneak out—as if the speakers had caught themselves nearly swearing in front of a child or parent.

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