After reading a lot of great answers on the topic of Fisherian versus Neyman & Pearson, I still cannot understand how Fisher carries out his test.

Here is my understanding of his workflow:

  1. Ask a question.
  2. Propose a null hypothesis based on the question.
  3. Do some experiments, and collect some data.
  4. Assuming the null is true, calculate the $p$-value.
  5. Report the exact $p$-value without comparing it with any explicit criteria.
  6. Take a look at your $p$:
    1. If you subjectively think it's too small, discard the data at your hand and go to the outermost (2) by proposing another null hypothesis.
    2. If you subjectively think large it's enough, discard the data at your hand, do another experiment, collect some new data, and find better ways to test your theory on them.

(From my understanding, the data used in the NHST stage cannot be used in further steps, regardless of whether we are following Fisher or Neyman & Pearson.)

I'm not sure if I'm correct, but there is a problem even if I am. Conventionally, the $p$-value is defined as

the probability of obtaining a test statistic at least as extreme as the actual sample value obtained given that the null hypothesis is true.

OK, but how do you define extreme without an alternative hypothesis? Everyone is a bit loose with their language when it comes to this issue, so while illustrative examples don't hurt, please don't post answers containing only examples. I am essentially asking for a high-level description of how Fisher chooses his critical region.

Note that this is not a problem for the Neyman-Pearson approach, because they didn't even mention the $p$-value in their 1933 paper that proposes the Neyman–Pearson lemma, so we can define Neyman-Pearson hypothesis testing in terms of critical regions, and then establish a bijection between the $p$-value and the critical regions. On the other hand, Fisher doesn't seem to have a single paper this clearly documents his way, and I'm a little confused.

  • $\begingroup$ Fisher typically* uses the likelihood to denote what's more extreme -- lower likelihood is more extreme. *(at least where he doesn't have an explicit test statistic which makes the ordering obvious)... e.g. consider the two tailed version of what's usually called the Fisher exact test (and its extension to $r\times c$ tables), where the tables are unambiguously ordered by their likelihood. $\endgroup$
    – Glen_b
    Jul 21, 2019 at 2:01
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, this is explicit in the question P-value: Fisherian vs. contemporary frequentist definitions. (This question was even in the "Related" questions list, which you can presently see in the right hand sidebar -- always a good thing to check.) $\,$ Using likelihood leads to what I see as the central difference between Fisher's approach and the Neyman-Pearson approach: Typically, a Fisher test is an "omnibus" test in the sense that every alternative that lowers likelihood ... ctd $\endgroup$
    – Glen_b
    Jul 21, 2019 at 6:17
  • $\begingroup$ ctd ... will tend to lead to rejection, while a Neyman-Pearson test is designed to have power against a specific alternative (or, more generally, against some specific sequence of alternatives). To me that doesn't make them especially competing notions of testing at all, but tools designed for somewhat different situations (i.e. as Alecos mentions here when discussing work by Spanos, complementary), each good at what they're trying to do, and one may quite reasonably choose one or the other depending on the circumstances. $\endgroup$
    – Glen_b
    Jul 21, 2019 at 6:25
  • $\begingroup$ (This is not presently an answer for two reasons; (i) I am debating whether this should be considered a duplicate, and (ii) if this isn't a duplicate and my comment ('it's based on the likelihood') were to be expanded into an answer, I should like to quote Fisher directly - though I don't expect he will mention the word likelihood specifically in this context.) $\endgroup$
    – Glen_b
    Jul 21, 2019 at 7:02
  • $\begingroup$ 'how do you define extreme without an alternative hypothesis?' is answered in your question 'as extreme as the actual sample value obtained' $\endgroup$
    – ReneBt
    Jul 21, 2019 at 7:07

1 Answer 1


Fisher's approach, in a fully parametric framework, was to reduce the data $X$ to a (one-dimensional) statistic sufficient, or conditionally sufficient, for the parameter of interest $\theta$, & to base inference on its distribution under the null hypothesis $\theta=\theta_0$. Typically he used the (or a) maximum-likelihood estimate $\hat\theta(X)$ (in any case the MLE, when unique, will be a one-to-one function of any one-dimensional sufficient statistic when there is one); though I don't recall any explicit discussion, viewing the maximum-likelihood estimate $\hat\theta(X_1)$ as more extreme than $\hat\theta(X_2)$ because it's further away from $\theta_0$ in the same direction follows naturally enough. See Fisher (1934), Proc. Royal Soc. Lond. A, 144 ,"Two New Properties of Mathematical Likelihood", § 2.6, for his emphasis on the connection between (maximum-likelihood) estimation & significance testing.

He doesn't seem to have given a great deal of thought to the calculation of p-values for two-tailed tests (at least for test statistics having discrete distributions). Yates (1984), JRSS A, 147, "Tests of Significance for 2x2 Contingency Tables", p. 444, quotes Fisher's (1946) reply to a letter from D.J Finney asking about two-tailed p-values for Fisher's Exact Test:

I believe I can defend the simple solution of doubling the total probability, not because it corresponds to any discrete subdivision of cases of the other tail, but because it corresponds with halving the probability, supposedly chosen in advance, with which the one observed is to be compared. [...] How does this strike you?

On the face of it this argument belongs more to the Neyman – Pearson approach.

Fisher (1973), Statistical Methods & Scientific Inference, pp 49 – 50, draws a distinction between testing a "general hypothesis"—a model—as a whole, & testing for a particular value of one of its parameters. In the latter case he reiterates the approach above; in the former his advice is this:

In choosing the grounds upon which a general hypothesis should be rejected, personal judgement may & should properly be exercised. The experimenter will rightly consider all points on which, in the light of current knowledge, the hypothesis may be imperfectly accurate, & will select tests, so far as possible, sensitive to these possible faults, rather than to others.

Which doesn't seem poles apart from the approach of stipulating an alternative hypothesis precisely & basing your choice of test statistic on considerations of power.

  • $\begingroup$ (+1) In the Neyman–Pearson framework, a test on a $\chi^2$ statistic is usually one-tailed, but Fisher considered it as a two-tailed test. Why do you think it belongs more to the Neyman–Pearson approach? $\endgroup$
    – nalzok
    Jul 30, 2019 at 18:29
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @naizok: There are lots of test statistics following a chi-squared distribution - can you give a context/reference? But anyway, I was referring to "the probability, supposedly chosen in advance, with which the one observed is to be compared" - Fisher is, it seems to me, justifying the p-value $2\min[\Pr(X \leq x), \Pr(X \geq x)]$ by its correspondence with an N-P style accept/reject test having that as its pre-specified significance level - controlling the Type I error. $\endgroup$ Jul 30, 2019 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ I was referring to the goodness of fit test since you talked about 2x2 contingency tables. Thanks for the clarification. I can see your point now. $\endgroup$
    – nalzok
    Jul 30, 2019 at 23:11

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