Accuracy and precision

Precision is a description of random errors, a measure of statistical variability.

Accuracy has two definitions:

  1. More commonly, it is a description of systematic errors, a measure of statistical bias; as these cause a difference between a result and a "true" value, ISO calls this trueness.
  2. Alternatively, ISO defines accuracy as describing a combination of both types of observational error above (random and systematic), so high accuracy requires both high precision and high trueness.

In simplest terms, given a set of data points from repeated measurements of the same quantity, the set can be said to be precise if the values are close to each other, while the set can be said to be accurate if their average is close to the true value of the quantity being measured. In the first, more common definition above, the two concepts are independent of each other, so a particular set of data can be said to be either accurate, or precise, or both, or neither.

Common technical definition

Accuracy is the proximity of measurement results to the true value; precision, the repeatability, or reproducibility of the measurement

In the fields of science and engineering, the accuracy of a measurement system is the degree of closeness of measurements of a quantity to that quantity's true value.[1] The precision of a measurement system, related to reproducibility and repeatability, is the degree to which repeated measurements under unchanged conditions show the same results.[1][2] Although the two words precision and accuracy can be synonymous in colloquial use, they are deliberately contrasted in the context of the scientific method.

The field of statistics, where the interpretation of measurements plays a central role, prefers to use the terms bias and variability instead of accuracy and precision: bias is the amount of inaccuracy and variability is the amount of imprecision.

A measurement system can be accurate but not precise, precise but not accurate, neither, or both. For example, if an experiment contains a systematic error, then increasing the sample size generally increases precision but does not improve accuracy. The result would be a consistent yet inaccurate string of results from the flawed experiment. Eliminating the systematic error improves accuracy but does not change precision.

A measurement system is considered valid if it is both accurate and precise. Related terms include bias (non-random or directed effects caused by a factor or factors unrelated to the independent variable) and error (random variability).

The terminology is also applied to indirect measurements—that is, values obtained by a computational procedure from observed data.

In addition to accuracy and precision, measurements may also have a measurement resolution, which is the smallest change in the underlying physical quantity that produces a response in the measurement.

In numerical analysis, accuracy is also the nearness of a calculation to the true value; while precision is the resolution of the representation, typically defined by the number of decimal or binary digits.

In military terms, accuracy refers primarily to the accuracy of fire (or "justesse de tir"), the precision of fire expressed by the closeness of a grouping of shots at and around the centre of the target.[3]

Quantification

In industrial instrumentation, accuracy is the measurement tolerance, or transmission of the instrument and defines the limits of the errors made when the instrument is used in normal operating conditions.[4]

Ideally a measurement device is both accurate and precise, with measurements all close to and tightly clustered around the true value. The accuracy and precision of a measurement process is usually established by repeatedly measuring some traceable reference standard. Such standards are defined in the International System of Units (abbreviated SI from French: Système international d'unités) and maintained by national standards organizations such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the United States.

This also applies when measurements are repeated and averaged. In that case, the term standard error is properly applied: the precision of the average is equal to the known standard deviation of the process divided by the square root of the number of measurements averaged. Further, the central limit theorem shows that the probability distribution of the averaged measurements will be closer to a normal distribution than that of individual measurements.

With regard to accuracy we can distinguish:

  • the difference between the mean of the measurements and the reference value, the bias. Establishing and correcting for bias is necessary for calibration.
  • the combined effect of that and precision.

A common convention in science and engineering is to express accuracy and/or precision implicitly by means of significant figures. Here, when not explicitly stated, the margin of error is understood to be one-half the value of the last significant place. For instance, a recording of 843.6 m, or 843.0 m, or 800.0 m would imply a margin of 0.05 m (the last significant place is the tenths place), while a recording of 8436 m would imply a margin of error of 0.5 m (the last significant digits are the units).

A reading of 8,000 m, with trailing zeroes and no decimal point, is ambiguous; the trailing zeroes may or may not be intended as significant figures. To avoid this ambiguity, the number could be represented in scientific notation: 8.0 × 103 m indicates that the first zero is significant (hence a margin of 50 m) while 8.000 × 103 m indicates that all three zeroes are significant, giving a margin of 0.5 m. Similarly, it is possible to use a multiple of the basic measurement unit: 8.0 km is equivalent to 8.0 × 103 m. In fact, it indicates a margin of 0.05 km (50 m). However, reliance on this convention can lead to false precision errors when accepting data from sources that do not obey it. For example, a source reporting a number like 153,753 with precision +/- 5,000 looks like it has precision +/- 0.5. Under the convention it would have been rounded to 154,000.

Precision includes:

  • repeatability — the variation arising when all efforts are made to keep conditions constant by using the same instrument and operator, and repeating during a short time period; and
  • reproducibility — the variation arising using the same measurement process among different instruments and operators, and over longer time periods.
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