Build Software for the Lay User

14 Feb

Most word processing software helpfully point out grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. Some even autocorrect. And some, like Grammarly, even give style advice. 

Now consider software used for business statistics. Say you want to compute the correlation between two vectors: [100, 2000, 300, 400, 500, 600] and [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 17000]. Most (all?) software will output .65. (The software assume you want Pearson’s correlation.) Experts know that the relatively large value in the second vector has a large influence on the correlation. For instance, switching it to -17000 will reverse the correlation coefficient to -.65. And if you remove the last observation, the correlation is 1. But a lay user would be none the wiser. Common software, e.g., Excel, R, Stata, Google Sheets, etc., do not warn the user about the outlier and its potential impact on the result. They should.

Take another example—the fickleness of the interpretation of AUC when you have binary predictors (see here) as much depends on how you treat ties. It is an obvious but subtle point. Commonly used statistical software, however, do not warn people about the issue.

Given the rate of increase in the production of knowledge, increasingly everyone is a lay user. For instance, in 2013, Lin showed that estimating ATE using OLS with a full set of interactions improves the precision of ATE. But such analyses are uncommon in economics papers. The analysis could be absent for a variety of reasons: 1. ignorance, 2. difficulty in estimating the model, 3. do not believe the result, etc. However, only ignorance stands the scrutiny. The model is easy to estimate, so the second explanation is unlikely to explain much. The last explanation also seems unlikely, given the result was published in a prominent statistical journal and experts use it.

If ignorance is the primary explanation, should the onus of being well informed about the latest useful discoveries in methods fall on researchers working in a substantive area? Plausibly. But that is clearly not working very well. One way to accelerate the dissemination of useful discoveries is via software, where you can provide such guidance as ‘warnings.’ 

The guidance can be put in manually. Or we can use machine learning, exploiting the strategy used by Grammarly, which uses expert editors to edit lay user sentences and uses that as training data.

We can improve science by building software that provides better guidance. The worst-case for such software is probably business-as-usual, where some researchers get bad advice and many get no advice.

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