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P values and effect size.

In this issue, the Research Report entitled "Travel in Adverse Winter Weather Conditions by Blind Pedestrians: Effect of Cane Tip Design on Travel on Snow," by Kim, Wall Emerson (the author of this Statistical Sidebar), and Gaves makes note of something called an effect size. This concept is increasingly important for experimenters, writers, and readers to understand. But before we talk about effect sizes, let us take a step back and look at significance levels. Without getting into the nitty gritty of hypothesis testing, what any statistical test is trying to determine is whether, given the data at hand, the results are more or less likely to be due to chance or to some real underlying cause-and-effect situation. It is arguably extremely difficult to prove absolutely that one thing caused another thing to happen, but we can test a hypothesis and establish what the likelihood is that what we think is happening actually is happening. In the social sciences, we typically accept a 95% level of certainty as sufficient, which means that we will accept a 5% chance that our results are just a fluke. The level of certainty is expressed in the reporting of a statistical test's significance level or p value. If the p value for a given statistical test is less than .05 (which is often used as the accepted level for significance), we say the result of the test is "statistically significant." The fact that the p value is less than .05 means there is less than a 5% chance that the result was just due to random error in the data. Of course, the results might be caused by some consistent effect that the researcher has neglected to control, but that is a complication best left for a future Statistical Sidebar.

As I indicated earlier, for many years, authors have reported the results of statistical tests with the accompanying p value and left it at that. However, there is a growing call for authors in all fields to also report effect sizes because the significance level can often be misleading. The p value is a function of the mathematical calculations used to arrive at the result of the statistical test. As such, factors such as how big the sample is, the assumed distribution of the data, and the type of test being done can all affect the p value. Most notably, if everything else is kept the same, but the number of observations or data points included in a statistical test increases, the p value will generally decrease. All things being equal, therefore, if you increase the amount of data being used to run a statistical test, you are more likely to have a statistically significant result. Since the p value is sensitive to this sort of mathematical manipulation, also reporting effect size can contribute a better understanding to the result of a statistical test.

Effect size is a measure of how large of an effect is revealed in the data being analyzed. Effect size is not dependent on sample size, so it is not perturbed like p value by increasing the number of observations for a statistical test. Although a p value indicates the statistical significance of a result, the effect size is indicative of the actual magnitude of the effect being tested. One way of looking at it is to ask whether the result of a statistical test reports a finding that is meaningful in the real world. A statistically significant finding might be indicative of a tiny difference between two conditions. In such a case, the effect size would probably be small. That tiny difference between the two conditions, while leading to a statistically significant result, does not reflect a large effect on a practical level. Although we do still need to continue to report p values to indicate whether statistical results are likely due to chance or not, we also need to report effect sizes so that we can correctly interpret those p values and assign any practical meaning to them.

Robert Wall Emerson, Ph.D., consulting editor for research, Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, and professor, Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies, Western Michigan University, 1903 West Michigan Avenue, Kalamazoo, MI49008; e-mail: <>.
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Title Annotation:Statistical Sidebar
Author:Emerson, Robert Wall
Publication:Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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