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Inference, forecasting and related uncertainty

Figure 1: From observations to hypotheses. $^{(*)}$The link between value of a quantity and theory is a reminder that sometimes a quantity has meaning only within a given theory or model [1].

The intellectual process of learning from observations can be sketched as illustrated in figure 1. From experimental data we wish to `determine' the value of some physical quantities, or to establish which theory describes `at best' the observed phenomena. Although these two tasks are usually seen as separate issues, and analyzed with different mathematical tools, they can be viewed as two subclasses of the same process: inferring hypotheses from observations. What differs between the two kinds of inference is the number of hypotheses that enters the game: a discrete, usually small number when dealing with theory comparison; a large, virtually infinite number when inferring the value of physical quantities.

In general, given some data (past observations), we wish to:

The process of learning from data and predicting new observations is characterized by uncertainty (see figure 2).
Figure 2: Theory (and the value of its parameters) acting as a link between past and future.
Uncertainty in going from past observations to the theory and its parameters. Uncertainty in predicting precise observations from the theory. And, as a consequence, uncertainty in predicting future observations from past observations. Rephrasing the hypothesis-observation scheme in terms of causes and effects, we can realize that the very source of uncertainty is due to the not biunivocal relationship between causes and effects, as sketched in figure 3. The fact that identical causes -- identical according to our knowledge -- might produce different effects can be due to internal (intrinsic) probabilistic aspects of the theory, as well as to our lack of knowledge about the exact set of causes.1(Experimental errors are one of the components of the external probabilistic behavior of the observations.) However, there is no practical difference between the two situations, as far as the probabilistic behavior of the result is concerned (i.e. in the status of our mind concerning the possible outcomes of the experiment), and hence to the probabilistic character of inference.
Figure 3: Causal links (top-down) and inferential links (down-up).

Given this cause-effect scheme, having observed an effect, we cannot be sure about its cause. (This is what happens to effects $E_2$, $E_3$ and $E_4$ of figure 3 -- effect $E_1$, that can only be due to cause $C_1$, has to be considered an exception, at least in the inferential problems scientists typically meet.)

Example 1.
As a simple example, think about the effect identified by the number $x=3$ resulting by one of the following random generators chosen at random: $H_1$ = ``a Gaussian generator with $\mu=0$ and $\sigma=1$''; $H_2$ = ``a Gaussian generator with $\mu=3$ and $\sigma=5$''; $H_3$ = ``an exponential generator with $\tau=2$'' ($\tau$ stands for the expected value of the exponential distribution; $\mu$ and $\sigma$ are the usual parameters of the Gaussian distribution). Our problem, stated in intuitive terms, is to find out which hypothesis might have caused $x=3$: $H_1$, $H_2$ or $H_3$? Note that none of the hypotheses of this example can be excluded and, therefore, there is no way to reach a boolean conclusion. We can only state, somehow, our rational preferences, based on the experimental result and our best knowledge of the behavior of each model.
The human mind is used to live -- and survive -- in conditions of uncertainty and has developed mental categories to handle it. Therefore, although we are in a constant status of uncertainty about many events which might or might not occur, we can be ``more or less sure -- or confident -- on something than on something else''. In other words, ``we consider something more or less probable (or likely)'', or ``we believe something more or less than something else''. We can use similar expressions, all referring to the intuitive idea of probability.

The status of uncertainty does not prevent us from doing Science. Indeed, said with Feynman's words, ``it is scientific only to say what is more likely and what is less likely''[3]. Therefore, it becomes crucial to learn how to deal quantitatively with probabilities of causes, because the ``problem(s) in the probability of causes ... may be said to be the essential problem(s) of the experimental method'' (Poincaré[4]).

However, and unfortunately, it is a matter of fact that nowadays most scientists are incapable to reason correctly about probabilities of causes, probabilities of hypotheses, probabilities of values of a quantities, and so on. This lack of expertise is due to the fact that we have been educated and trained with a statistical theory in which the very concept of probability of hypotheses is absent, although we naturally tend to think and express ourselves in such terms. In other words, the common prejudice is that probability is the long-term relative frequency, but, on the other hand, probabilistic statements about hypotheses (or statements implying, anyway, a probabilistic meaning) are constantly made by the same persons, statements that are irreconcilable with their definition of probability [5]. The result of this mismatch between natural thinking and cultural over-structure produces mistakes in scientific judgment, as discussed e.g. in Refs. [1,5].

Another prejudice, rather common among scientists, is that, when they deal with hypotheses, `they think they reason' according to the falsificationist scheme: hence, the hypotheses tests of conventional statistics are approached with a genuine intent of proving/falsifying something. For this reason we need to shortly review these concepts, in order to show the reasons why they are less satisfactory than we might naïvely think. (The reader is assumed to be familiar with the concepts of hypothesis tests, though at an elementary level -- null hypothesis, one and two tail tests, acceptance/rejection, significance, type 1 and type 2 errors, an so on.)

next up previous
Next: Falsificationism and its statistical Up: From Observations to Hypotheses Previous: From Observations to Hypotheses
Giulio D'Agostini 2004-12-22