The chance that A has nukes is p%

I watched a movie in which one of the characters said, “country A has nukes with 80% chance” (perhaps, not 80% but it was a high percentage). One of the statements in that episode is that people will not eat lettuce only if the 1% chance of e coli is reported, even lower. Therefore, with such a high percentage of having nukes, it is right to send troops to A. This episode immediately brought me a thought about astronomers’ null hypothesis probability and their ways of concluding chi-square goodness of fit tests, likelihood ratio tests, or F-tests.

First of all, I’d like to ask how you would like to estimate the chance of having nukes in a country? What this 80% implies here? But, before getting to the question, I’d like to discuss computing the chance of e coli infection, first.

From the frequentists perspective, computing the chance of e coli infection is investigating sample of lettuce and counts species that are infected: n is the number of infected species and N is the total sample size. 1% means one among 100. Such percentage reports and their uncertainties are very familiar scene during any election periods for everyone. From Bayesian perspective, Pr(p|D) ~ L(D|p) pi(p), properly choosing likelihoods and priors, one can estimate the chance of e coli infection and uncertainty. Understanding of sample species and a prior knowledge helps to determine likelihoods and priors.

How about the chance that country A has nukes? Do we have replicates of country A so that a committee investigate each country and count ones with nukes to compute the chance? We cannot do that. Traditional frequentist approach, based on counting, does not work here to compute the chance. Either using fiducial likelihood approach or Bayesian approach, i.e. carefully choosing a likelihood function adequately (priors are only for Bayesian) allows one to compuate such probability of interest. In other words, those computed chances highly depend on the choice of model and are very subjective.

So, here’s my concern. It seems like that astronomers want to know the chance of their spectral data being described by a model (A*B+C)*D (each letter stands for one of models such as listed in Sherpa Models). This is more like computing the chance of having nukes in country A, not counting frequencies of the event occurrence. On the other hand, p-value from goodness of fit tests, LRTs, or F-tests is a number from the traditional frequentists’ counting approach. In other words, p-value accounts for, under the null hypothesis (the (A*B+C)*D model is the right choice so that residuals are Gaussian), how many times one will observe the event (say, reduced chi^2 >1.2) if the experiments are done N times. The problem is that we only have one time experiment and that one spectrum to verify the (A*B+C)*D is true. Goodness of fit or LRT only tells the goodness or the badness of the model, not the statistically and objectively quantified chance.

In order to know the chance of the model (A*B+C)*D, like A has nuke with p%, one should not rely on p-values. If you have multiple models, one could compute pairwise relative chances i.e. odds ratios, or Bayes factors. However this does not provide the uncertainty of the chance (astronomers have the tendency of reporting uncertainties of any point estimates even if the procedure is statistically meaningless and that quantified uncertainty is not statistical uncertainty, as in using delta chi^2=1 to report 68% confidence intervals). There are various model selection criteria that cater various conditions embedded in data to make a right model choice among other candidate models. In addition, post-inference for astronomical models is yet a very difficult problem.

In order to report the righteous chance of (A*B+C)*D requires more elaborated statistical modeling, always brings some fierce discussions between frequentists and Bayesian because of priors and likelihoods. Although it can be very boring process, I want astronomers to leave the problem to statisticians instead of using inappropriate test statistics and making creative interpretation of statistics.

Please, keep this question in your mind when you report probability: what kind of chance are you computing? The chance of e coli infection? Or the chance that A has nukes? Make sure to understand that p-values from data analysis packages does not tell you that the chance the model (A*B+C)*D is (one minus p-value)%. You don’t want to report one minus p-value from a chi-square test statistic as the chance that A has nukes.

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