Possible Fermilab “breakthough” illustrates statistical significance

Scientists at Fermilab may be on the verge of a scientific breakthrough regarding “a new elementary particle or a new fundamental force of nature.” There is just one problem:

But scientists on the Fermilab team say there is about a 1 in 1,000 chance that the results are a statistical fluke — odds far too high for them to claim a discovery.

“That’s no more than what physicists tend to call an ‘observation’ or an ‘indication,’ ” said Caltech physicist Harvey Newman.

For the finding to be considered real, researchers have to reduce the chances of a statistical fluke to about 1 in a million.

One of the key concepts in a statistics or social research course is statistical significance, where researchers say that they are 95% certain (or more) that their result is not just the result due to their sample or chance but that it actually reflects the population or reality. These scientists at Fermilab then want to be really sure that the results reflect reality as they want to reduce their possible error to 1 in a million.

Beyond working with the calculations, the scientists are also hoping to replicate their findings and rule out other explanations for what they are seeing:

Researchers hope that more data compiled at Fermilab will shed light on the matter, or that the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva will be able to replicate the findings. “We will know this summer when we double the data sets and see if it is still there,” said physicist Rob Roser of Fermilab, who is a spokesman for the project…

What the team must to do now, Roser said, is “eliminate all the mundane explanations.” They have been working on that, he said, and decided it was time to go public and let others know what they had found so far.

And science rolls on.

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