Monday, October 03, 2005

Statistical significance; or how descriptive dictionaries screw up (social) science

Somewhere early in the development of thise general idea [of hypothesis, significance, testing], the word significant came to be used to indicate that the probability was low enough for rejection. Data became significant if they could be used to reject a proposed distribution. The word was used in its late-nineteenth-century English meaning, which is simply that the computation signified or showed something. As the English language entered the twentieth century, the word significant began to take on other meanings, until it developed its currents meaning, implying something very important. Statistical analysis still uses the word significant to indicate a very low probability computed under the hypothesis being tested. In that context, the word has an exact mathematical meaning. Unfortunately, those who use statistical analysis often treat a significant test statistic as implying something closer to the modern meaning of the word.
David Salsburg, pg. 98.

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