(1997).In praise of the null hypothesis statistical test.

Here are three experiments to illustrate when the different approaches to statistics are appropriate. In the first experiment, you are testing a plant extract on rabbits to see if it will lower their blood pressure. You already know that the plant extract is a diuretic (makes the rabbits pee more) and you already know that diuretics tend to lower blood pressure, so you think there's a good chance it will work. If it does work, you'll do more low-cost animal tests on it before you do expensive, potentially risky human trials. Your prior expectation is that the null hypothesis (that the plant extract has no effect) has a good chance of being false, and the cost of a false positive is fairly low. So you should do frequentist hypothesis testing, with a significance level of 0.05.

The null hypothesis is usually stated as the absence of a difference or an effect.

If the test statistic falls in the rejection region--that is, if the statistic is a value that is in the rejection region--the null hypothesis is rejected.


It is usually the complement of the null hypothesis.

Many authors talk about rejecting the null hypothesis in favor of the alternative.

A Bayesian would insist that you put in numbers just how likely you think the null hypothesis and various values of the alternative hypothesis are, before you do the experiment, and I'm not sure how that is supposed to work in practice for most experimental biology. But the general concept is a valuable one: as Carl Sagan summarized it, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."


not rejecting the null hypothesis when the alternative is true.

This number, 0.030, is the P value. It is defined as the probability of getting the observed result, or a more extreme result, if the null hypothesis is true. So "P=0.030" is a shorthand way of saying "The probability of getting 17 or fewer male chickens out of 48 total chickens, IF the null hypothesis is true that 50% of chickens are male, is 0.030."

The failure to reject does not imply the null hypothesis is true.

After you do a statistical test, you are either going to reject or accept the null hypothesis. Rejecting the null hypothesis means that you conclude that the null hypothesis is not true; in our chicken sex example, you would conclude that the true proportion of male chicks, if you gave chocolate to an infinite number of chicken mothers, would be less than 50%.

Learn About Null Hypothesis and Alternative Hypothesis

The primary goal of a statistical test is to determine whether an observed data set is so different from what you would expect under the null hypothesis that you should reject the null hypothesis. For example, let's say you are studying sex determination in chickens. For breeds of chickens that are bred to lay lots of eggs, female chicks are more valuable than male chicks, so if you could figure out a way to manipulate the sex ratio, you could make a lot of chicken farmers very happy. You've fed chocolate to a bunch of female chickens (in birds, unlike mammals, the female parent determines the sex of the offspring), and you get 25 female chicks and 23 male chicks. Anyone would look at those numbers and see that they could easily result from chance; there would be no reason to reject the null hypothesis of a 1:1 ratio of females to males. If you got 47 females and 1 male, most people would look at those numbers and see that they would be extremely unlikely to happen due to luck, if the null hypothesis were true; you would reject the null hypothesis and conclude that chocolate really changed the sex ratio. However, what if you had 31 females and 17 males? That's definitely more females than males, but is it really so unlikely to occur due to chance that you can reject the null hypothesis? To answer that, you need more than common sense, you need to calculate the probability of getting a deviation that large due to chance.