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Am J Law Med. 2017 May;43(2-3):193-208. doi: 10.1177/0098858817723659.

Statistics, Adjusted Statistics, and Maladjusted Statistics.

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Professor and Canada Research Chair in Health Disparities, Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Occupational Health, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Supported by the Canada Research Chairs Program. Drs. Osagie Obasogie, Hailey Banack, Nicholas King, and Joanna-Trees Merckx provided generous and insightful comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript.


Statistical adjustment is a ubiquitous practice in all quantitative fields that is meant to correct for improprieties or limitations in observed data, to remove the influence of nuisance variables or to turn observed correlations into causal inferences. These adjustments proceed by reporting not what was observed in the real world, but instead modeling what would have been observed in an imaginary world in which specific nuisances and improprieties are absent. These techniques are powerful and useful inferential tools, but their application can be hazardous or deleterious if consumers of the adjusted results mistake the imaginary world of models for the real world of data. Adjustments require decisions about which factors are of primary interest and which are imagined away, and yet many adjusted results are presented without any explanation or justification for these decisions. Adjustments can be harmful if poorly motivated, and are frequently misinterpreted in the media's reporting of scientific studies. Adjustment procedures have become so routinized that many scientists and readers lose the habit of relating the reported findings back to the real world in which we live.


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