Siddhartha Mukherjee on a common post hoc abuse of statistical analysis

Siddhartha Mukherjee:

then a second instinct takes over: Why not try to find the people for whom the drug did work?…

But it’s also a treacherous seduction…

Perhaps the most stinging reminder of these pitfalls comes from a timeless paper published by the statistician Richard Peto. In 1988, Peto and colleagues had finished an enormous randomized trial on 17,000 patients that proved the benefit of aspirin after a heart attack. The Lancet agreed to publish the data, but with a catch: The editors wanted to determine which patients had benefited the most. Older or younger subjects? Men or women?

Peto, a statistical rigorist, refused — such analyses would inevitably lead to artifactual conclusions — but the editors persisted, declining to advance the paper otherwise. Peto sent the paper back, but with a prank buried inside. The clinical subgroups were there, as requested — but he had inserted an additional one: “The patients were subdivided into 12 … groups according to their medieval astrological birth signs.” When the tongue-in-cheek zodiac subgroups were analyzed, Geminis and Libras were found to have no benefit from aspirin, but the drug “produced halving of risk if you were born under Capricorn.” Peto now insisted that the “astrological subgroups” also be included in the paper — in part to serve as a moral lesson for posterity. I’ve often thought of Peto’s paper as required reading for every medical student.