Ethical Guidelines for Statistical Practice

Ethical behavior is something we should strive for in all that we do. Ethical issues arise in statistics because of the important role statistics plays in the collection, analysis, presenta­tion, and interpretation of data. In a statistical study, unethical behavior can take a variety of forms including improper sampling, inappropriate analysis of the data, development of misleading graphs, use of inappropriate summary statistics, and/or a biased interpretation of the statistical results.

As you begin to do your own statistical work, we encourage you to be fair, thorough, objective, and neutral as you collect data, conduct analyses, make oral presentations, and present written reports containing information developed. As a consumer of statistics, you should also be aware of the possibility of unethical statistical behavior by others. When you see statistics in the media, it is a good idea to view the information with some skepticism, always being aware of the source as well as the purpose and objectivity of the statistics provided.

The American Statistical Association, the nation’s leading professional organization for statistics and statisticians, developed the report “Ethical Guidelines for Statistical Practice”2 to help statistical practitioners make and communicate ethical decisions and assist students in learning how to perform statistical work responsibly. The report con­tains 52 guidelines organized into eight topic areas: Professional Integrity and Account­ability; Integrity of Data and Methods; Responsibilities to Science/Public/Funder/Client; Responsibilities to Research Subjects; Responsibilities to Research Team Colleagues; Responsibilities to Other Statisticians or Statistics Practitioners; Responsibilities Regarding Allegations of Misconduct; and Responsibilities of Employers Including Organizations, Individuals, Attorneys, or Other Clients Employing Statistical Practitioners.

One of the ethical guidelines in the Professional Integrity and Accountability area ad­dresses the issue of running multiple tests until a desired result is obtained. Let us consider an example. In Section 1.5 we discussed a statistical study conducted by Rogers Indus­tries involving a sample of 200 lithium batteries manufactured with a new solid-state technology. The average battery life for the sample, 18.84 hours, provided an estimate of the average lifetime for all lithium batteries produced with the new solid-state technol­ogy. However, since Rogers selected a sample of batteries, it is reasonable to assume that another sample would have provided a different average battery life.

Suppose Rogers’s management had hoped the sample results would enable them to claim that the average time until recharge for the new batteries was 20 hours or more. Sup­pose further that Rogers’s management decides to continue the study by manufacturing and testing repeated samples of 200 batteries with the new solid-state technology until a sample mean of 20 hours or more is obtained. If the study is repeated enough times, a sample may eventually be obtained—by chance alone—that would provide the desired result and enable Rogers to make such a claim. In this case, consumers would be misled into thinking the new product is better than it actually is. Clearly, this type of behavior is unethical and represents a gross misuse of statistics in practice.

Several ethical guidelines in the responsibilities and publications and testimony area deal with issues involving the handling of data. For instance, a statistician must account for all data considered in a study and explain the sample(s) actually used. In the Rogers Industries study the average battery life for the 200 batteries in the original sample is 18.84 hours; this is less than the 20 hours or more that management hoped to obtain. Sup­pose now that after reviewing the results showing a 18.84 hour average battery life, Rogers discards all the observations with 18 or less hours until recharge, allegedly because these batteries contain imperfections caused by startup problems in the manufacturing process. After discarding these batteries, the average lifetime for the remaining batteries in the sample turns out to be 22 hours. Would you be suspicious of Rogers’s claim that the battery life for its new solid-state batteries is 22 hours?

If the Rogers batteries showing 18 or less hours until recharge were discarded to simply provide an average lifetime of 22 hours, there is no question that discarding the batteries with 18 or fewer hours until recharge is unethical. But, even if the discarded batteries con­tain imperfections due to startup problems in the manufacturing process—and, as a result, should not have been included in the analysis—the statistician who conducted the study must account for all the data that were considered and explain how the sample actually used was obtained. To do otherwise is potentially misleading and would constitute unethi­cal behavior on the part of both the company and the statistician.

A guideline in the shared values section of the American Statistical Association report states that statistical practitioners should avoid any tendency to slant statistical work toward predetermined outcomes. This type of unethical practice is often observed when unrepresentative samples are used to make claims. For instance, in many areas of the country smoking is not permitted in restaurants. Suppose, however, a lobbyist for the tobacco industry interviews people in restaurants where smoking is permitted in order to estimate the percentage of people who are in favor of allowing smoking in restaurants. The sample results show that 90% of the people interviewed are in favor of allowing smoking in restaurants. Based upon these sample results, the lobbyist claims that 90% of all people who eat in restaurants are in favor of permitting smoking in restaurants. In this case we would argue that only sampling persons eating in restaurants that allow smoking has biased the results. If only the final results of such a study are reported, readers unfamiliar with the details of the study (i.e., that the sample was collected only in restaurants allowing smoking) can be misled.

The scope of the American Statistical Association’s report is broad and includes ethical guidelines that are appropriate not only for a statistician, but also for consumers of statistical information. We encourage you to read the report to obtain a better perspective of ethical issues as you continue your study of statistics and to gain the background for determining how to ensure that ethical standards are met when you start to use statistics in practice.

Source:  Anderson David R., Sweeney Dennis J., Williams Thomas A. (2019), Statistics for Business & Economics, Cengage Learning; 14th edition.

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