Stats in the News: February 2017

I’ve had a couple interesting stats related news articles forwarded to me recently, both of which are worth a look for those interested in the way data and stats shape our lives.

First they came for the guys with the data

This one comes from the confusing world of European economics, and is accompanied by the rather alarming headline “Greece’s Response to Its Resurgent Debt Crisis: Prosecute the Statistician” (note: WSJ articles are behind a paywall, Google the first sentence of the article to access it for free). The article covers the rather concerning story of how Greece attempted to clean up it’s (notoriously wrong) debt estimates, only to turn around and prosecute the statistician they hired to do so. Unsurprisingly, things soured when his calculations showed they looked even worse than they’d said and were used to justify austerity measures. He’s been tried 4 times with no mathematical errors found, and it appears that he adhered to general EU accounting conventions in all cases. Unfortunately he still has multiple cases pending, and in at least one he’s up for life in prison.

Now I am not particularly a fan of economic data. Partially that’s because I’m not trained in that area, and partially because it appears to be some of the most easily manipulated data there is. The idea that someone could come up with a calculation standard that was unfair or favored one country over others is not crazy. There’s a million ways of saying “this assumption here is minor and reasonable but that assumption there is crazy and you’re deceptive for making it”. There’s nothing that guarantees that the EU recommended way of doing things was fair or reasonable, other than that they claim they are. Greece could have been screwed by German recommendations for debt calculations, I don’t know. However, prosecuting the person who did the calculations as opposed to vigorously protesting the accounting tricks is NOT the way to make your point….especially when he was literally hired to clean up known accounting tricks you never prosecuted anyone for.

Again, no idea who’s right here, but I do tend to believe (with all due respect to Popehat) that vagueness in data complaints is the hallmark of meritless thuggery. If your biggest complaint about a statistic is it’s outcome, then I begin to suspect your complaint is not actually a statistical one.

Safety and efficacy in Phase 1 clinical trials

The second article I got forwarded was an editorial from Nature, and is a call for an increased focus on efficacy in Phase 1 clinical trials. For those of you not familiar with the drug development world, Phase 1 trials currently only look at drug safety without having to consider whether or not they work. Currently about half of all drugs that proceed to phase 2 or phase 3 end up failing to demonstrate ANY efficacy.

The Nature editorial was spurred by a safety trial that went terribly wrong and ended up damaging almost all of the previously healthy volunteers. Given that there are a limited number of people willing to sign up to be safety test subjects, this is a big issue. Previously the general consensus had been to leave this up to companies to decide what was and was not worth proceeding with, believing that market forces would get companies to screen the drugs they were testing. However, given some recent safety failures and recent publications showing how often statistical manipulations are used to push drugs along have called this in to question. As we saw in our “Does Popularity Influence Reliability” series, this effect will likely be worse the more widely studied the topic is.

It should be noted that major safety failures and/or damage from experimental drugs is fairly rare, so much of this is really a resource or ethics debate. Statistically though, it also speaks to increasing the pre-study odds we talked in the “Why Most Published Research Findings are False” series. If we know that low pre-study odds are likely to lead to many false positives, then raising the bar for pre-study odds seems pretty reasonable. At the very least the company’s should have to submit a calculation, along with the rationale. I still maintain this should be a public function of professional associations.