Pragmatic warrant for frequentist statistical practice: the case of high energy physics

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Synthese, ISSN: 0039-7857, Vol: 194, Issue: 2, Page: 355-376

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Kent W. Staley
Springer Nature, Springer (Springer Science+Business Media B.V.)
Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences
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Amidst long-running debates within the field, high energy physics (HEP) has adopted a statistical methodology that primarily employs standard frequentist techniques such as significance testing and confidence interval estimation, but incorporates Bayesian methods for limited purposes. The discovery of the Higgs boson has drawn increased attention to the statistical methods employed within HEP. Here I argue that the warrant for the practice in HEP of relying primarily on frequentist methods can best be understood as pragmatic, in the sense that statistical methods are chosen for their suitability for the practical demands of experimental HEP, rather than reflecting a commitment to a particular epistemic framework. In particular, I argue that understanding the statistical methodology of HEP through the perspective of pragmatism clarifies the role of and rationale for significance testing in the search for new phenomena such as the Higgs boson.

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