Agreement Is Difficult: So What Are We Gonna Do? I Dunno, What You Wanna Do?

It is never easy to come to an agreement – even amongst friends! The Vultures from Disney’s The Jungle Book (oldie but a goodie) certainly know this. In medical research measuring agreement is also a challenge. In this series of posts I am going to talk about agreement and how it is measured.

Agreement measures the “closeness” between things. It is a broad term that contains both “accuracy” and “precision”. So, let’s say you are shopping for screen protectors for your wonderful new phone. You head to the internet and start going through the gazillion links advertising screen protectors of all sizes and styles. As you just spent your savings on the phone, you do not have much money left over for the screen protector. You decide on a generic brand and order a pack of 10. After an unbearable wait of a week to receive them in the mail you open the pack and find that even though you ordered the screen protector to fit your specific phone they are a little small… except for two that fit perfectly! What? That’s annoying.

So, how close are the screen protectors to being “true” to the expected product? This is agreement. Now, most of them are a little small. This represents poor “accuracy”. This is because there exists a systematic bias. If you took the mean size of these 10 protectors you would find that it deviated from the true expected value – size in this case. Furthermore, you found that two of the 10 protectors actually fit your phone screen rather well. This is great, but this inconsistency between your protectors represents poor “precision”. This time we are interested in the degree of scatter between your measurements – a measure of within sample variation due to random error (see my Dickens post for more info).

Now the concepts of accuracy and precision originated in the physical sciences where direct measurements are possible. Not to be outdone, the social sciences (and then soon to adopt medical sciences!) decided to establish similar concepts – validity and reliability. We will discuss these in a latter post but for now simply remember that the main differences are that a reference is required for validity and that both validity and reliability are most often assessed with scaled indices.

Phew! That was a little confusing. Have a listen to We Just Disagree from Dave Mason to relax.

Next post we will look a little more closely at two special kinds of precision – repeatability and reproducibility.

See you in the blogoshere,

Pascal Tyrrell