The Anatidae Principle

If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands.
– Douglas Adams

I like to teach my students how they can apply to their data-analysis what I call the Anatidae Principle (or the Principle of the Duck). (The name is obviously inspired by the above quote from Douglas Adam’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency).

For the purpose of data-analysis, the Anatidae Principle simply boils down to the following: If it looks like you found a relation, difference, or effect in your sample you should at least consider the possibility that there indeed is a relation, difference or effect. That is, look at your data, summarize, make figures, and think (hard) about what your data potentially mean for the answer to your research question, hypotheses, hunches, whatever you like. Do this before you start calculating p-values, confidence intervals, Bayes Factors, Posterior distributions, etc., etc.

In my experience, researchers too often violate the Anatidae Principle: they calculate a p-value, and if it is not significant they simply ignore their sample results. Never mind that, as they predicted, group A  outperforms group B, if it is not significant, they will claim they found no effect. And, worse still, believe it.

Kline (2013) ) (p. 117) gives solid advice:

“Null hypothesis rejections do not imply substantive significance, so researchers need other frames of reference to explain to their audiences why the results are interesting or important. A start is to learn to describe your results without mention of statistical significance at all. In its place, refer to descriptive statistics and effect sizes and explain why those effect sizes matter in a particular context. Doing so may seem odd at first, but you should understand that statistical tests are not generally necessary to detect meaningful or noteworthy effects, which should be obvious to visual inspection of relatively simple kinds of graphical displays (Cohen, 1994). The description of results at a level closer to the data may also help researchers to develop better communication skills.”