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Statistics LibreTexts

7.2: The Probability Value

  • Page ID
    7114
  • It is very important to understand precisely what the probability values mean. In the James Bond example, the computed probability of 0.0106 is the probability he would be correct on 13 or more taste tests (out of 16) if he were just guessing.

    It is easy to mistake this probability of 0.0106 as the probability he cannot tell the difference. This is not at all what it means. 

    The probability of 0.0106 is the probability of a certain outcome (13 or more out of 16) assuming a certain state of the world (James Bond was only guessing). It is not the probability that a state of the world is true. Although this might seem like a distinction without a difference, consider the following example. An animal trainer claims that a trained bird can determine whether or not numbers are evenly divisible by 7. In an experiment assessing this claim, the bird is given a series of 16 test trials. On each trial, a number is displayed on a screen and the bird pecks at one of two keys to indicate its choice. The numbers are chosen in such a way that the probability of any number being evenly divisible by 7 is 0.50. The bird is correct on 9/16 choices. We can compute that the probability of being correct nine or more times out of 16 if one is only guessing is 0.40. Since a bird who is only guessing would do this well 40% of the time, these data do not provide convincing evidence that the bird can tell the difference between the two types of numbers. As a scientist, you would be very skeptical that the bird had this ability. Would you conclude that there is a 0.40 probability that the bird can tell the difference? Certainly not! You would think the probability is much lower than 0.0001.

    To reiterate, the probability value is the probability of an outcome (9/16 or better) and not the probability of a particular state of the world (the bird was only guessing). In statistics, it is conventional to refer to possible states of the world as hypotheses since they are hypothesized states of the world. Using this terminology, the probability value is the probability of an outcome given the hypothesis. It is not the probability of the hypothesis given the outcome.

    This is not to say that we ignore the probability of the hypothesis. If the probability of the outcome given the hypothesis is sufficiently low, we have evidence that the hypothesis is false. However, we do not compute the probability that the hypothesis is false. In the James Bond example, the hypothesis is that he cannot tell the difference between shaken and stirred martinis. The probability value is low (0.0106), thus providing evidence that he can tell the difference. However, we have not computed the probability that he can tell the difference.  

    Contributors

    • Foster et al. (University of Missouri-St. Louis, Rice University, & University of Houston, Downtown Campus)