Statistical learning is a hot topic, with papers about a link between statistical learning ability and reading and/or dyslexia mushrooming all over the place. In this blog post, I am very sceptical about statistical learning, but before I continue, I should make it clear that it is, in principle, an interesting topic, and there are a lot of studies which I like very much.
I’ve published two papers on statistical learning and reading/dyslexia. My main research interest is in cross-linguistic differences in skilled reading, reading acquisition, and dyslexia, which was also the topic of my PhD. The reason why, during my first post-doc, I became interested in the statistical learning literature, was, in retrospect, exactly the reason why I should have stayed away from it: It seemed relevant to everything I was doing.
From the perspective of cross-linguistic reading research, statistical learning seemed to be integral to understanding cross-linguistic differences. This is because the statistical distributions underlying the print-to-speech correspondences differ across orthographies: in orthographies such as English, children need to extract statistical regularities such as a being often pronounced as /ɔ/ when it succeeds a w (e.g., in “swan”). The degree to which these statistical regularities provide reliable cues differ across orthographies: for example, in Finnish, letter-phoneme correspondences are reliable, such that children don’t need to extract a large number of subtle regularities in order to be able to read accurately.
From a completely different perspective, I became interested in the role of letter bigram frequency during reading. One can count how often a given letter pair co-occurs in a given orthography. The question is whether the average (or summed) frequency of the bigrams within a word affects the speed with which this word is processed. This is relevant to psycholinguistic experiments from a methodological perspective: if letter bigram frequency affects reading efficiency, it’s a factor that needs to be controlled while selecting items for an experiment. Learning the frequency of letter combinations can be thought of as a sort of statistical learning task, because it involves the conditional probabilities of a letter given the other.
The relevance of statistical learning to everything should have been a warning sign, because, as we know from Karl Popper, something that explains everything actually explains nothing. This becomes clearer when we ask the first question that a researcher should ask: What is statistical learning? I don’t want to claim that there is no answer to this question, nor do I want to provide an extensive literature review of the studies that do provide a precise definition. Suffice it to say: Some papers have definitions of statistical learning that are extremely broad, which is the reason why it is often used as a hand-wavy term denoting a mechanism that explains everything. This is an example of a one-word explanation, a term coined by Gerd Gigerenzer in his paper “Surrogates for theories” (one of my favourite papers). Other papers provide more specific definitions, for example, by defining statistical learning based on a specific task that is supposed to measure it. However, I have found no consensus among these definitions: and given that different researchers have different definitions for the same terminology, the resulting theoretical and empirical work is (in my view) a huge mess.
In addition to these theoretical issues, there is also a big methodological mess when it comes to the literature on statistical learning and reading or dyslexia. I’ve written about this in more detail in our two papers (linked above), but here I will list the methodological issues in a more compact manner: First, when we’re looking at individual differences (for example, by correlating reading ability and statistical learning ability), the lack of a task with good psychometric properties becomes a huge problem. This issue has been discussed in a number of publications by Noam Siegelman and colleagues, who even developed a task with good psychometric properties for adults (e.g., here and here). However, as far as I’ve seen, there are still no published studies on reading ability or dyslexia using improved tasks. Furthermore, recent evidence suggests that a statistical learning task which works well with adults still has very poor psychometric properties when applied to children.
Second, the statistical learning and reading literature is a good illustration of all the issues that are associated with the replication crisis. Some of these are discussed in our systematic review about statistical learning and dyslexia (linked above). The publication bias in this area (selective publication of significant results) became even clearer to me when I presented our study on statistical learning and reading ability – where we obtained a null result – at the SSSR conference in Brighton (2018). There were several proponents of the statistical learning theory (if we can call it that) of reading and dyslexia, but none of them came to my poster to discuss this null result. Conversely, a number of people dropped by to let me know that they’ve conducted similar studies and also gotten null results.
Papers on statistical learning and reading/dyslexia continue to be published, and at some point, I was close to being convinced that maybe, visual statistical learning is related to learning to read in orthographies with a visually complex orthography. But then, some major methodological or statistical issue always jumps out at me when I read a paper closely enough. The literature reviews of these papers tend to be biased, often listing studies with null-results as evidence for the presence of an effect, or else picking out all the flaws of papers with null results, while treating the studies with positive results as a holy grail. I have stopped reading such papers, because it does not feel like a productive use of my time.
I have also stopped accepting invitations to review papers about statistical learning and reading/dyslexia, because I have started to doubt my ability to give an objective review. By now, I have a strong prior that there is no link between domain-general statistical learning ability and reading/dyslexia. I could be convinced otherwise, but would require very strong evidence (i.e., a number large-scale pre-registered studies from independent labs with psychometrically well-established tasks). While I strongly believe that such evidence is required, I realise that it is unreasonable to expect such studies from most researchers who conduct this type of research, who are mainly early-career researchers who base their methodology on previous studies.
I also stopped doing or planning any studies on domain-general statistical learning. The amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it, as Alberto Brandolini famously tweeted. This is not to say that everything to do with statistical learning and reading/dyslexia is bullshit, but – well, some of it definitely is. I hope that good research will continue to be done in this area, and that the state of the literature will become clearer because of this. In the meantime, I have made the personal decision to move away from this line of research. I have received good advice from one of my PhD supervisors: not to get hung up on research that I think is bad, but to pick an area where I think there is good work and to build on that. Sticking to this advice definitely makes the research process more fun (for me). Statistical learning studies are likely to yield null results, which end up uninterpretable because of the psychometric issues with statistical learning tasks. Trying to publish this kind of work is not a pleasant experience.
Why did I write this blog post? Partly, just to vent. I wrote it as a blog post and not as a theoretical paper, because it lacks the objectivity and a systematic approach which would be required for a scientifically sound piece of writing. If I were to write a scientifically sound paper, I would need to break my resolution to stop doing research on statistical learning, so a blog post it is. Some of the issues above have been discussed in our systematic review about statistical learning and dyslexia, but I also thought it would be good to summarise these arguments in a more concise form. Perhaps some beginning PhD student who is thinking about doing their project on statistical learning and reading will come across this post. In this case, my advice would be: pick a different topic.