The Limitations of the Results of a Statistical Analysis (Corporate)

It’s a chilly winter day, and you are cozied up in your favorite armchair, sipping a warm cup of tea. You’re flipping through a popular magazine when an article catches your eye, ‘The Best Tea for a Cold Winter’s Day.’ The article claims that peppermint tea is the ultimate winter warmer, citing a survey of tea drinkers in a small tropical town. You’re a little surprised. After all, you’ve always found ginger tea more comforting in the winter months. You think, ‘Surely, the preferences of people in a tropical climate can’t represent everyone’s tastes, right?’

Congratulations! You’ve just identified a limitation in a statistical analysis! You’ve noted that the sample used in the study—tea drinkers in a tropical town—might not represent all tea drinkers, especially those in colder climates.

In this article, we will explore this crucial step in the world of data and numbers—the act of identifying the limitations of the results of a statistical analysis. We will delve into how this process can help us make informed decisions, challenge assumptions, and deepen our understanding of the world around us.


What a Statistical Analysis Might Not Be Able to Explain or Show Us, and Why it’s Super Important to Know These Things!
  • Validity and reliability: Validity asks the question of whether our data is actually measuring what we are interested in knowing. This seems straightforward for certain things like measuring distances or heights but is more difficult when you try to measure something like feelings or satisfaction. Reliability asks whether the tool you are using to measure something gives you the same results every time. Again, certain mechanical tools can be very reliable, like a ruler or scale, but other tools, like surveys, can be less reliable, being affected by things like time of day, whether it is in person or online, and the quality of the questions. Imagine this example. You have a scale that always reports people are 5 pounds lighter than they actually are. The scale is very reliable (same results every time) but is not a valid measure of weight because its measures are not accurate.
  • Generalizability: Let’s say you found out that using blue paper makes your airplane fly the furthest. But can you say that all blue paper is the best for everyone or for every airplane design? We have to be careful about using our findings too broadly. This is where knowing the limitations of our study can help.
  • Planning future research: So, you’ve figured out something about blue paper and airplanes. But what about red paper? Or green paper? Knowing what your study didn’t cover can help you plan what to try next.
  • Ethics and transparency: We all know being fair and honest is important. And it’s the same with statistical analysis. We need to be open about what our study can and can’t show. It’s like when you play a game! You must follow the rules and be fair to everyone.
  • Informed decision-making: Informed decision-making means making smart choices based on reliable information. Just like you wouldn’t pick a team for a basketball game solely based on who’s the tallest without considering their basketball skills! We understand that statistical analysis is just one tool in the decision-making process, and it’s important to consider other perspectives and sources of information as well.
    • Example of an informed decision: When we interpret the results of a survey-based observational t-test, we need to understand its limitations. While a statistical analysis, like an observational t-test, can provide us with valuable insights and help us understand patterns or relationships in the data, it has certain limitations. It might not be able to explain or show us everything about a situation or phenomenon. By being aware of these limitations, we can make smarter choices. We can consider other factors, gather additional information, and use critical thinking skills to make more informed decisions.


But How Do We Find Out What a Study Might Not Be Able to Explain or Show Us?
Well, we need to look at the study itself! Here are a few tips:
  • Check how the study was set up: Just like how the rules of a game can change how it’s played, how a study is set up can affect the results.
  • Look at the study sample: If only a few people are studied, we can’t say much about everyone else.
  • Check for bias and other factors: We need to make sure nothing else was influencing the results.
  • Look at what was measured: Did we measure the right things? (validity). Make sure the things measured in the study are relevant and accurate for what we want to know. Check if the measurements are reliable – would they give the same results if we did it again?
  • Look for guesses or assumptions: Did the study guess something that might not be true? For example, we created a survey question that asked whether you took the bus, drove, or were driven to work but left out a category for walkers and bikers.
  • Look at how the results were interpreted: Do the conclusions make sense?  Think about whether the conclusions made from the results make sense and are backed up by the data. Be careful of making too broad or too strong statements based on the results.


Navigating the Pitfalls: What to Watch Out For
  • Don’t mix up “related” with “causes”: Just because two things happen together doesn’t mean one causes the other. Ice cream sales and crime are positively correlated, but it seems unlikely one actually causes the other (e.g., it is more likely that warm weather impacts both).
  • Don’t forget where and how the data was collected: The way data is collected can affect what it tells us. Studying highway traffic from 1 to 2 a.m. will not tell us little about traffic from 7 to 8 a.m.
  • Don’t forget what the study was designed to answer: It’s easy to get excited about interesting results, but remember to focus on the question the study was trying to answer.
  • Don’t forget the time frame and scope of the data: The data collected only represents a specific period and area. For example, a study on polar bears in the Arctic in 2020 can’t tell us about polar bears in Antarctica in 2023. Remember to consider the time and place of the data when making conclusions or using it to answer questions.
  • Think about how the results could be misunderstood: Results can sometimes be used in ways that the study wasn’t designed for. For example, a study showing that people who exercise more have less stress doesn’t mean that all types of exercise reduce all types of stress. Be cautious of generalizing results too much or using them to support unrelated ideas. It’s best to stick closely to what the study was really about.



Case Study: Analyzing Perfume Manufacturing Efficiency

Meet Emily Thompson, a seasoned corporate professional with over a decade of experience in the fragrance industry. Emily currently serves as the Director of Operations at ScentEssence, a renowned perfume manufacturing company. ScentEssence has been analyzing their manufacturing processes to improve efficiency and product quality. They recently conducted a statistical analysis to assess the impact of various factors on perfume production yield. Emily was tasked with reviewing the results of this analysis to make informed decisions for process optimization.

As Emily delved into the statistical analysis report, she immediately recognized the importance of critically evaluating the findings before implementing any changes. She understood that while statistics can provide valuable insights, they also have their limitations that need to be considered. Emily was determined to make sound decisions based on a comprehensive understanding of the data.

The statistical analysis revealed that temperature and mixing time had a significant impact on perfume production yield. However, Emily was well aware of the potential limitations that could affect the practical application of these findings. She identified the following limitations:

  • External Factors: Emily knew that the analysis focused solely on temperature and mixing time, neglecting potential external variables that could influence production yield. Factors like raw material quality, operator skill, and equipment maintenance could also contribute to variations in yield but were not considered in the analysis.
  • Sample Size: The analysis was conducted over a span of two months using a limited number of production batches. Emily recognized that a larger sample size over a more extended period would provide a more accurate representation of the variability in production yield, reducing the risk of drawing erroneous conclusions.
  • Complex Interactions: The statistical analysis treated temperature and mixing time as independent variables, overlooking potential interactions between these factors and other process parameters. Emily realized that production processes are often interconnected and that changes in one parameter could have cascading effects on others, potentially leading to unforeseen consequences.
  • Dynamic Nature of Operations: ScentEssence’s manufacturing environment was dynamic, with changing conditions and occasional unforeseen disruptions. Emily understood that the analysis might not fully capture the real-world complexities of the production floor, potentially leading to a gap between theoretical findings and practical outcomes.
  • Long-Term Sustainability: The analysis focused on short-term yield improvements, but Emily also considered the long-term sustainability of any process changes. She acknowledged the need to balance immediate gains with the potential for increased operational costs, resource utilization, or environmental impact.

Armed with a keen awareness of these limitations, Emily initiated discussions with the cross-functional team. She emphasized the need for a holistic approach that combined statistical insights with on-the-ground experience and practical knowledge. Emily recommended conducting further experiments with an expanded dataset, incorporating additional process variables, and running simulations to understand the potential outcomes of process adjustments better.

Emily’s ability to identify and communicate these limitations ensured that the company’s decision-making process was well-informed and nuanced. By taking a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to the statistical analysis results, Emily demonstrated her commitment to driving meaningful improvements in perfume manufacturing efficiency while minimizing the risks associated with overlooking key factors.