Tag Archives: Edge

“Crusade Against Multiple Regression Analysis” – don’t throw baby out with bathwater


Richard Nisbett is a professor of psychology and co-director of the Culture and Cognition Program at the University of Michigan.

Edge has an interesting talk  about the problems of research relying on regression analyses (see The Crusade Against Multiple Regression Analysis).  Unfortunately, it has some important faults – not the least is his use of the term “multiple regression” when he was really complaining  about simple regression analysis.

Professor Richard Nisbett quite rightly points out that many studies using regression analysis are worthless, even misleading – even, as he suggests, “quite damaging.”  Damaging because these studies gets reported in the popular media and their faulty conclusions are “taken as gospel” by many readers. Nisbet says:

“I hope that in the future, if I’m successful in communicating with people about this, there’ll be a kind of upfront warning in New York Times articles: These data are based on multiple regression analysis. This would be a sign that you probably shouldn’t read the article because you’re quite likely to get non-information or misinformation.

Knowing that the technique is terribly flawed and asking yourself—which you shouldn’t have to do because you ought to be told by the journalist what generated these data—if the study is subject to self-selection effects or confounded variable effects, and if it is, you should probably ignore them. What I most want to do is blow the whistle on this and stop scientists from doing this kind of thing. As I say, many of the very best social psychologists don’t understand this point.

I want to do an article that will describe, similar to the way I have done now, what the problem is. I’m going to work with a statistician who can do all the formal stuff, and hopefully we’ll be published in some outlet that will reach scientists in all fields and also act as a kind of “buyer beware” for the general reader, so they understand when a technique is deeply flawed and can be alert to the possibility that the study they’re reading has the self-selection or confounded-variable problems that are characteristic of multiple regression.”

I really hope he does work with a statistician who can explain to him the mistakes he is making.  The fact that he raises the issue of “confounded-variable problems” shows he is really talking about simple regression analysis. This problem can be reduced by increasing the types and numbers of comparisons performed in an analysis – by the use of multiple regression analysis, the very thing he makes central to his attack!

The self-selection problem

Nisbett gives a couple of examples of the self-selection problem:

“A while back, I read a government report in The New York Times on the safety of automobiles. The measure that they used was the deaths per million drivers of each of these autos. It turns out that, for example, there are enormously more deaths per million drivers who drive Ford F150 pickups than for people who drive Volvo station wagons. Most people’s reaction, and certainly my initial reaction to it was, “Well, it sort of figures—everybody knows that Volvos are safe.”

Let’s describe two people and you tell me who you think is more likely to be driving the Volvo and who is more likely to be driving the pickup: a suburban matron in the New York area and a twenty-five-year-old cowboy in Oklahoma. It’s obvious that people are not assigned their cars. We don’t say, “Billy, you’ll be driving a powder blue Volvo station wagon.” Because of this self-selection problem, you simply can’t interpret data like that. You know virtually nothing about the relative safety of cars based on that study.

I saw in The New York Times recently an article by a respected writer reporting that people who have elaborate weddings tend to have marriages that last longer. How would that be? Maybe it’s just all the darned expense and bother—you don’t want to get divorced. It’s a cognitive dissonance thing.

Let’s think about who makes elaborate plans for expensive weddings: people who are better off financially, which is by itself a good prognosis for marriage; people who are more educated, also a better prognosis; people who are richer; people who are older—the later you get married, the more likelihood that the marriage will last, and so on.”

You get the idea. But how many academic studies rely on regression analysis of data from a self-selected sample of people? The favourite groups for many studies are psychology undergraduates at universities!

Confounded variable problem

I have, in past articles, discussed some examples of this related to fluoride and community water fluoridation.

See also: Prof. Nisbett’s “Crusade” Against Regression


Simple regression analyses are too prone to confirmation bias and Nisbett should have chosen his words more carefully, and wisely. Multiple regression is not a silver bullet – but it is far better than a simple correlation analysis. Replication and proper peer review at all research and publication stages also helps. And we should always be aware of these and other limitation in exploratory statistical analysis. Ideally, use of such analyses should be limited to a guide for future, more controlled, studies.

Unfortunately, simple correlation studies are widespread and reporters seem to see them as easy studies for their mainstream media articles. This is dangerous because it has more influence on readers, and their actions, than such limited studies really warrant. And in the psychological and health fields there are ideologically motivated groups who will promote such poor quality studies because it fits their own agenda.

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Certainty is useless – a scientific concept

Each year John Brockman, the founder EDGE poses a question to a large number of public thinkers. He collects and publishes the answers – firstly on The Edge World Question Center website and then usually in book form. This year the question is:

“The term ‘scientific”is to be understood in a broad sense as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great people in history, or the structure of DNA. A “scientific concept” may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence, or other analytic enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous conceptual tool that may be summed up succinctly (or “in a phrase”) but has broad application to understanding the world.”

It’s a great question – originally posed by Steven Pinker. And the answers from over 150 participants are included. You can read them at your leisure at the question center. Alternatively, download this pdf file, Scientific toolkit, I created (226 pages) to read on your eBook reader.

As an example – here’s a short answer contributed by CARLO ROVELLI, a theoretical physicist and author of The First Scientist: Anaximander and His Legacy“. It’s very relevant to some of the discussions that go on around here:

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Changing your mind

John Brockman over at the Edge website periodically poses a stimulating question to a whole range of thinkers, some of the worlds finest minds. I’m currently reading the book compiled from responses to the 2006 question: “What is your dangerous idea?” Fascinating.

The 2008 question is; “What have you changed your mind about? Why?”

As the Edge site says:

When thinking changes your mind, that’s philosophy.
When God changes your mind, that’s faith.
When facts change your mind, that’s science.

Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?”

One hundred and sixty three contributors answered this question with relatively brief statements. They are well worth reading. I have listed extracts from a few of the contributors below. Continue reading

Holiday reading

Most New Zealanders celebrate Christmas and New Year with family events, holidays, relaxation and fun at the beach. For many of us it is a chance to catch up with our reading – I’m certainly looking forward to getting into a number of books I have recently purchased.

Many magazines publish lists of recommended books at this time of the year. It’s noticeable, however, that these lists usually contain few, or no, science books. The NZ listener was no exception (Best books cds & dvds of 2007) with only one science-based book included. The Publishe& Editor of Edge, John Brockman, comments on this (Third Culture Holiday Reading):

“Given the well-documented challenges and issues we are facing as a nation, as a culture, how can it be that there are no science books (and hardly any books on ideas) on the New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year list; no science category in the EconomistBooks of the Year 2007; only Oliver Sacks in the New Yorker’s list of Books From Our Pages?”

He laments the way that “official culture” seems to ignore science, despite its critical importance:

“But science today is changing our understanding of our universe and species, and scientific literacy is indispensable to dealing with some of the world’s most pressing issues. Fortunately, we live in a time when third culture intellectuals-scientists, science journalists, and other science-minded writers-are among our best nonfiction writers, and their many engaging books have brought scientific insight to a wide audience.”

The Edge lists a number of science-related books published in 2007. I have read three of them and will be attempting to get a number of others.

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