What 'Fail to Reject' Means in a Hypothesis Test

Scientist in Protective Workwear Taking a Water Sample

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In statistics, scientists can perform a number of different significance tests to determine if there is a relationship between two phenomena. One of the first they usually perform is a null hypothesis test. In short, the null hypothesis states that there is no meaningful relationship between two measured phenomena. After a performing a test, scientists can:

  1. Reject the null hypothesis (meaning there is a definite, consequential relationship between the two phenomena), or
  2. Fail to reject the null hypothesis (meaning the test has not identified a consequential relationship between the two phenomena)

Key Takeaways: The Null Hypothesis

• In a test of significance, the null hypothesis states that there is no meaningful relationship between two measured phenomena.

• By comparing the null hypothesis to an alternative hypothesis, scientists can either reject or fail to reject the null hypothesis.

• The null hypothesis cannot be positively proven. Rather, all that scientists can determine from a test of significance is that the evidence collected does or does not disprove the null hypothesis.

It is important to note that a failure to reject does not mean that the null hypothesis is true—only that the test did not prove it to be false. In some cases, depending on the experiment, a relationship may exist between two phenomena that is not identified by the experiment. In such cases, new experiments must be designed to rule out alternative hypotheses.

Null vs. Alternative Hypothesis

The null hypothesis is considered the default in a scientific experiment. In contrast, an alternative hypothesis is one that claims that there is a meaningful relationship between two phenomena. These two competing hypotheses can be compared by performing a statistical hypothesis test, which determines whether there is a statistically significant relationship between the data.

For example, scientists studying the water quality of a stream may wish to determine whether a certain chemical affects the acidity of the water. The null hypothesis—that the chemical has no effect on the water quality—can be tested by measuring the pH level of two water samples, one of which contains some of the chemical and one of which has been left untouched. If the sample with the added chemical is measurably more or less acidic—as determined through statistical analysis—it is a reason to reject the null hypothesis. If the sample's acidity is unchanged, it is a reason to not reject the null hypothesis.

When scientists design experiments, they attempt to find evidence for the alternative hypothesis. They do not try to prove that the null hypothesis is true. The null hypothesis is assumed to be an accurate statement until contrary evidence proves otherwise. As a result, a test of significance does not produce any evidence pertaining to the truth of the null hypothesis.

Failing to Reject vs. Accept

In an experiment, the null hypothesis and the alternative hypothesis should be carefully formulated such that one and only one of these statements is true. If the collected data supports the alternative hypothesis, then the null hypothesis can be rejected as false. However, if the data does not support the alternative hypothesis, this does not mean that the null hypothesis is true. All it means is that the null hypothesis has not been disproven—hence the term "failure to reject." A "failure to reject" a hypothesis should not be confused with acceptance.

In mathematics, negations are typically formed by simply placing the word “not” in the correct place. Using this convention, tests of significance allow scientists to either reject or not reject the null hypothesis. It sometimes takes a moment to realize that “not rejecting” is not the same as "accepting."

Null Hypothesis Example

In many ways, the philosophy behind a test of significance is similar to that of a trial. At the beginning of the proceedings, when the defendant enters a plea of “not guilty,” it is analogous to the statement of the null hypothesis. While the defendant may indeed be innocent, there is no plea of “innocent” to be formally made in court. The alternative hypothesis of “guilty” is what the prosecutor attempts to demonstrate.

The presumption at the outset of the trial is that the defendant is innocent. In theory, there is no need for the defendant to prove that he or she is innocent. The burden of proof is on the prosecuting attorney, who must marshal enough evidence to convince the jury that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Likewise, in a test of significance, a scientist can only reject the null hypothesis by providing evidence for the alternative hypothesis.

If there is not enough evidence in a trial to demonstrate guilt, then the defendant is declared “not guilty.” This claim has nothing to do with innocence; it merely reflects the fact that the prosecution failed to provide enough evidence of guilt. In a similar way, a failure to reject the null hypothesis in a significance test does not mean that the null hypothesis is true. It only means that the scientist was unable to provide enough evidence for the alternative hypothesis.

For example, scientists testing the effects of a certain pesticide on crop yields might design an experiment in which some crops are left untreated and others are treated with varying amounts of pesticide. Any result in which the crop yields varied based on pesticide exposure—assuming all other variables are equal—would provide strong evidence for the alternative hypothesis (that the pesticide does affect crop yields). As a result, the scientists would have reason to reject the null hypothesis.