Concerns with that Stanford study of virus prevalence in Santa Clara

I think the authors of the above-linked paper owe us all an apology. We wasted time and effort discussing this paper whose main selling point was some numbers that were essentially the product of a statistical error.

I’m serious about the apology. Everyone makes mistakes. I don’t think they authors need to apologize just because they screwed up. I think they need to apologize because these were avoidable screw-ups. They’re the kind of screw-ups that happen if you want to leap out with an exciting finding and you don’t look too carefully at what you might have done wrong.

Look. A couple weeks ago I was involved in a survey regarding coronavirus symptoms and some other things. We took the data and ran some regressions and got some cool results. We were excited. That’s fine. But we didn’t then write up a damn preprint and set the publicity machine into action. We noticed a bunch of weird things with our data, lots of cases were excluded for one reason or another, then we realized there were some issues of imbalance so we couldn’t really trust the regression as is, at the very least we’d want to do some matching first . . . I don’t actually know what’s happening with that project right now. Fine. We better clean up the data if we want to say anything useful. Or we could release the raw data, whatever. The point is, if you’re gonna go to all this trouble collecting your data, be a bit more careful in the analysis! Careful not just in the details but in the process: get some outsiders involved who can have a fresh perspective and aren’t invested in the success of your project.

Also, remember that reputational inference goes both ways. The authors of this article put in a lot of work because they are concerned about public health and want to contribute to useful decision making. The study got attention and credibility in part because of the reputation of Stanford. Fair enough: Stanford’s a great institution. Amazing things are done at Stanford. But Stanford has also paid a small price for publicizing this work, because people will remember that “the Stanford study” was hyped but it had issues. So there is a cost here.

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