Equivocations between informal and formal uses of “probability” (as well as “likelihood” and “confidence”) are responsible for much confusion in statistical foundations, as is remarked in a famous paper I was rereading today by Allan Birnbaum:
“It is of course common nontechnical usage to call any proposition probable or likely if it is supported by strong evidence of some kind. .. However such usage is to be avoided as misleading in this problem-area, because each of the terms probability, likelihood and confidence coefficient is given a distinct mathematical and extramathematical usage.” (1969, 139 Note 4).
For my part, I find that I never use probabilities to express degrees of evidence (either in mathematical or extramathematical uses), but I realize others might. Even so, I agree with Birnbaum “that such usage is to be avoided as misleading in” foundational discussions of evidence. We know, infer, accept, and detach from evidence, all kinds of claims without any inclination to add an additional quantity such as a degree of probability or belief arrived at via, and obeying, the formal probability calculus.
It is interesting, as a little exercise, to examine scientific descriptions of the state of knowledge in a field. A few days ago, I posted something from Weinberg on the Higgs particle. Here are some statements, with some terms emphasized:
The general features of the electroweak theory have been well tested; their validity is not what has been at stake in the recent experiments at CERN and Fermilab, and would not be seriously in doubt even if no Higgs particle had been discovered.
I see no suggestion of a formal application of Bayesian probability notions. Continue reading