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« Is cultural cognition a bummer? Part 2 | Main | Is cultural cognition a bummer? Part 1 »

R^2 ("r squared") envy

Am at a conference & a (perfectly nice & really smart) guy in the audience warns everyone not to take social psychology data on risk perception too seriously: "some of the studies have R2's of only 0.15...."

Oy.... Where to start? Well how about with this: the R2 for viagra effectiveness versus placebo ... 0.14!

R2 is the "percentage of the variance explained" by a statistical model. I'm sure this guy at the conference knew what he was talking about, but arguments about whether a study's R2 is "big enough" are an annoying, and annoyingly common, distraction. 

Remarkably, the mistake -- the conceptual misundersandings, really -- associated with R2 fixation were articulated very clearly and authoritatively decades ago, by scholars who were then or who have become since giants in the field of empirical methods: 

I'll summarize the nub of the mistake asssociated with R2 fixation but it is worth noting that the durability of it suggests more than a lack of information is at work; there's some sort of congeniality between R2 fixation and a way of seeing the world or doing research or defending turf or dealing with anxiety/inferiority complexs or something... Be interesting for someone to figure out what's going on.

But anyway, two points:

1.  R2 is an effect size measure, not a grade on an exam with a top score of 100%. We see a world that is filled with seeming randomness. Any time you make it less random -- make part of it explainable to some appreciable extent by identifying some systematic process inside it -- good! R2 is one way of characterizing how big a chunk of randomness you have vanquished (or have if your model is otherwise valid, something that the size of R2 has nothing to do with). But the difference between it & 1.0 is neither here nor there-- or in any case, it has nothing to do with whether you in fact know something or how important what you know is.

2. The "how important what you know is" question is related to R2 but the relationship is not revealed by subtracting Rfrom 1.0. Indeed, there is no abstract formula for figuring out "how big" R