## Archive for March, 2009

### Does coverage matter?

In response to Andrew Gelman’s extended April Fool’s diatribe on Objections to Bayesian Statistics, Larry Wasserman commented regarding physicists who want guaranteed frequentist coverage for their confidence intervals that “Their desire for frequentist coverage seems well justified. Someday, we can count how many of their intervals trapped the true parameter values and assess the coverage. The 95 percent frequentist intervals will live up to their advertised coverage claims. A trail of Bayesian intervals will, in general, not have this property”.

One thing to note about this statement is that it’s just not true. Confidence intervals produced in actual scientific research are notorious for not covering the true value, even when they are produced using frequentist recipes. This is why high-energy physicists insist on such absurdly high confidence levels (or absurdly low p-values) before declaring discoveries — what they call “five sigma” evidence, which corresponds to a p-value of less than 10^{-6}. If taken seriously, quoting such a small p-value would be pointless, since any reader would surely assign a higher probability than that to the possibility that the “discovery” results from fraud or gross incompetence. The high confidence levels demanded are just an ad hoc way of trying to compensate for possible inadequacies in the statistical model used, which can easily make the true coverage probability be much less than advertised (or the true Type I error rate much higher than advertised).

Let’s ignore this, though, since discussions of theory omitting messy practical issues can be valuable. The next thing to ask, then, is how it is possible that a 90% Bayesian probability interval — which purports to contain the true value with 90% probability — can contain the true value less than 90% of the time. A simple example will show how this can happen, and provide insight into whether we should care. (more…)