Some degree of varying confidence

Did you numerate people chuckle at Chuck Hagel when he said today:

“..the US intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons…”

Well, stop it. That sounds quite honest and accurate to me. When you assess an explanation based on some data, you have a whole range of alternative explanations at your disposal. You can choose one that is likely (though that depends on assumptions about the mechanisms that generate the data given the explanation in the first place, a.k.a. probability) or one that is lovely (Peter Lipton’s turn of phrase, not mine), although what is lovely to me as a simple, elegant explanation that also sorts out some long-standing puzzles elsewhere in our experience (yup, they did), might not be your choice of lovely (the CIA did it to justify an invasion). Ideally we would all agree on an explanation that is likely and lovely, but the world doesn’t seem to be like that.

I make certain assumptions I’m comfortable with, you make different ones. I test hypotheses I think are interesting and plausible, you test different ones. I am intrigued by a p=0.07 result and report it, you ignore it on principle. We are both using “frequentist” statistics yet we end up with different answers. And to make matters ‘worse’, whoever of us publishes their analysis first will inspire the other one to do something different tomorrow. So my confidence will not only be rather contingent but also varying.

Science is subjective. Get over it!


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