Is the term “approaching significance” cheating?

Blog time again, so let’s get this show on the road. The question presented this week is whether or not the term approaching significance is cheating. If we look at this literally, then yes it is. By saying approaching significance it’s like saying “I’m almost there” when meeting a friend, when you still haven’t bothered to get dressed. But I guess it entirely depends on the context of the research whether this is a big deal or not. Take the research of Pope, Kouri and Hudson for example. They found that there was approaching significance of there being no change in level of depression based on men’s level of testosterone. Bit of a mouthful I know, but basically meaning they can nearly conclude that level of testosterone doesn’t play a role in depression. Now presuming that something such as depression develops due to multi-casual reasons, this doesn’t have a huge impact on anyone. There are still plenty of effective routes in which clinicians can try and help patients and treat their patients, be it providing drug treatment to elevate serotonin levels, or suggest counselling to help with potential issues effecting the patient.

 Put it at the other end of the spectrum however, and things can get a lot more serious. This is highlighted in Thompson, Rikard, Orcheson and Seidl’s research into mammary tumour growth. They claim that by taking flaxseed oil, there is up to a 50% reduction in mammary tumour growth. Unfortunately, this is only to an “approaching significance”. This is most definitely a very dangerous claim to make for something backed up with a very wishy washy term of approaching significance. When faced with life threatening conditions, understandably people want as much concrete evidence as they can get on their respective treatment, no one likes uncertainty. If presented with this information, patients may react in very extreme ways, be it a prolonged lease of life, an optimism of survival, or a much more daunting over-realistic belief of survival. There’s a whole ethical argument of whether people should be given false hope, but when it comes down to something that is life threatening, is it really a good idea? I always try and be an optimistic person, but I’m going to have to take quite a pessimistic stance on this, you need to be realistic and understand what’s going on with no sense of delusion, especially with something as important as this.

Coming back from this tangent though, I stand by my initial statement that using the term approaching significance is cheating, however it does depend on the context. There is a time and a place for everything, and terms like this are no exception. When the stakes are high then things need to be concrete, or this just leads to problems. (in this example, emotional turmoil?) To end by quoting Helmuth Von Moltke: First weigh the considerations, then take the risks.






2 thoughts on “Is the term “approaching significance” cheating?

  1. I do agree with some of the points you have made in your blog but I do wonder how this would affect research in certain situations. For example a researcher claiming that the findings were approaching significance in a study that was not considered important until another researcher used it to connect different pieces of research together to form a new theory. This might have swayed the second researcher to think that their proposed theory is possible and that there is evidence to support it when the research actually shows findings that state otherwise. Therefore I feel that this statement ‘approaching significance’ could potentially lead to a lot of confusion because in a way it is suggesting to researchers that there could be significant results but yet at the same time it states that the results are not significant. This may cause researchers to repeat a study that was already found to produce non significant results leading to resources being wasted and yet another paper being filed away because it will not get published.

  2. Pingback: Homework for my TA week 8 « fr4nw

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