Statistical inference for exploratory data analysis and model diagnostics

Andreas Buja, Dianne Cook, Heike Hofmann, Michael Lawrence, Eun Kyung Lee, Deborah F. Swayne, Hadley Wickham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

90 Scopus citations


We propose to furnish visual statistical methods with an inferential framework and protocol, modelled on confirmatory statistical testing. In this framework, plots take on the role of test statistics, and human cognition the role of statistical tests. Statistical significance of 'discoveries' is measured by having the human viewer compare the plot of the real dataset with collections of plots of simulated datasets. A simple but rigorous protocol that provides inferential validity is modelled after the 'lineup' popular from criminal legal procedures. Another protocol modelled after the 'Rorschach' inkblot test, well known from (pop-)psychology, will help analysts acclimatize to random variability before being exposed to the plot of the real data. The proposed protocols will be useful for exploratory data analysis, with reference datasets simulated by using a null assumption that structure is absent. The framework is also useful for model diagnostics in which case reference datasets are simulated from the model in question. This latter point follows up on previous proposals. Adopting the protocols will mean an adjustment in working procedures for data analysts, adding more rigour, and teachers might find that incorporating these protocols into the curriculum improves their students' statistical thinking. This journal is

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4361-4383
Number of pages23
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences
Issue number1906
StatePublished - 13 Nov 2009


  • Cognitive perception
  • Permutation tests
  • Rotation tests
  • Simulation
  • Statistical graphics
  • Visual data mining


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