Monday, March 28, 2016

Should we always bring out our nulls?

tl;dr: Thinking about projects that aren't (and may never be) finished. Should they necessarily be published?

So, the other day there was a very nice conversation on twitter, started by Micah Allen and focusing on people clearing out their file-drawers and describing null findings. The original inspiration was a very interesting paper about one lab's file drawer, in which we got insight into the messy state of the evidence the lab had collected prior to its being packaged into conventional publications.

The broader idea, of course, is that – since they don't fit as easily into conventional narratives of discovery – null findings are much less often published than positive findings. This publication bias then leads to an inflation of effect sizes, with many negative consequences downstream. And the response to problem of publication bias then appears to be simple: publish findings regardless of statistical significance, removing the bias in the literature. Hence, #bringoutyernulls.

This narrative is a good one and an important one. But whenever the publication bias discussion come up, I have a contrarian instinct that I have a hard time suppressing. I've written about this issue before, and in that previous piece I tried to articulate the cost-benefit calculation: while suppressing publication has a cost in terms of bias, publication itself also has a very significant cost to both authors (in writing, revising, and even funding publication) and readers (in sorting through and interpreting the literature). There really is junk, the publication of which would be a net negative –whether because of errors or irrelevance. But today I want to talk about something else that bothers me about the analysis of publication bias I described above.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Limited support for an app-based intervention

tl;dr: I reanalyzed a recent field-trial of a math-learning app. The results differ by analytic strategy, suggesting the importance of preregistration.

Last year, Berkowitz et al. published a randomized controlled trial of a learning app. Children were randomly assigned to math and reading app groups; their learning outcomes on standardized math and reading tests were assessed after a period of app usage. A math anxiety measure was also collected for children’s parents. The authors wrote that:

The intervention, short numerical story problems delivered through an iPad app, significantly increased children’s math achievement across the school year compared to a reading (control) group, especially for children whose parents are habitually anxious about math.
I got excited about this finding because I have recently been trying to understand the potential of mobile and tablet apps for intervention at home, but when I dug into the data I found that not all views of the dataset supported the success of the intervention. That's important because this was a well-designed, well-conducted trial. But the basic randomization to condition did not produce differences in outcome, as you can see in the main figure of my reanalysis.

My extensive audit of the dataset is posted here, with code and their data here. (I really appreciate that the authors shared their raw data so that I could do this analysis – this is a huge step forward for the field!). Quoting from my report: 
In my view, the Berkowitz et al. study does not show that the intervention as a whole was successful, because there was no main effect of the intervention on performance. Instead, it shows that – in some analyses – more use of the math app was related to greater growth in math performance, a dose-response relationship that is subject to significant endogeneity issues (because parents who use math apps more are potentially different from those who don’t). In addition, there is very limited evidence for a relationship of this growth to math anxiety. In sum, this is a well-designed study that nevertheless shows only tentative support for an app-based intervention.
Here's a link to my published comment (which came out today), and here's Berkowitz et al.'s very classy response. Their final line is:
We welcome debate about data analysis and hope that this discussion benefits the scientific community.