Observational error (or measurement error) is the difference between a measured value of quantity and its true value. In statistics, an error is not a "mistake". Variability is an inherent part of things being measured and of the measurement process.
Measurement errors can be divided into two components: random error and systematic error. Random errors are errors in measurement that lead to measurable values being inconsistent when repeated measures of a constant attribute or quantity are taken. Systematic errors are errors that are not determined by chance but are introduced by an inaccuracy (as of observation or measurement) inherent in the system. Systematic error may also refer to an error having a nonzero mean, so that its effect is not reduced when observations are averaged.
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There are two types of measurement error: systematic errors and random errors.
A systematic error (an estimate of which is known as a measurement bias) is associated with the fact that a measured value contains an offset. In general, a systematic error, regarded as a quantity, is a component of error that remains constant or depends in a specific manner on some other quantity.
A random error is associated with the fact that when a measurement is repeated it will generally provide a measured value that is different from the previous value. It is random in that the next measured value cannot be predicted exactly from previous such values. (If a prediction were possible, allowance for the effect could be made.)
In general, there can be a number of contributions to each type of error.
The Performance Test Standard PTC 19.1-2005 “Test Uncertainty”, published by ASME, discusses systematic and random errors in considerable detail. In fact, it conceptualizes its basic uncertainty categories in these terms.
Science and experiments
When either randomness or uncertainty modeled by probability theory is attributed to such errors, they are "errors" in the sense in which that term is used in statistics; see errors and residuals in statistics.
Every time we repeat a measurement with a sensitive instrument, we obtain slightly different results. The common statistical model we use is that the error has two additive parts:
- systematic error which always occurs, with the same value, when we use the instrument in the same way and in the same case, and
- random error which may vary from observation to observation.
Systematic error is sometimes called statistical bias. It may often be reduced by very carefully standardized procedures. Part of the education in every science is how to use the standard instruments of the discipline.
The random error (or random variation) is due to factors which we cannot (or do not) control. It may be too expensive or we may be too ignorant of these factors to control them each time we measure. It may even be that whatever we are trying to measure is changing in time (see dynamic models), or is fundamentally probabilistic (as is the case in quantum mechanics—see Measurement in quantum mechanics). Random error often occurs when instruments are pushed to their limits. For example, it is common for digital balances to exhibit random error in their least significant digit. Three measurements of a single object might read something like 0.9111g, 0.9110g, and 0.9112g.
Systematic versus random error
Measurement errors can be divided into two components: random error and systematic error.
Random error is always present in a measurement. It is caused by inherently unpredictable fluctuations in the readings of a measurement apparatus or in the experimenter's interpretation of the instrumental reading. Random errors show up as different results for ostensibly the same repeated measurement. They can be estimated by comparing multiple measurements, and reduced by averaging multiple measurements. Systematic error cannot be discovered this way because it always pushes the results in the same direction. If the cause of a systematic error can be identified, then it can usually be eliminated.
Systematic error, however, is predictable and typically constant or proportional to the true value. If the cause of the systematic error can be identified, then it usually can be eliminated. Systematic errors are caused by imperfect calibration of measurement instruments or imperfect methods of observation, or interference of the environment with the measurement process, and always affect the results of an experiment in a predictable direction. Incorrect zeroing of an instrument leading to a zero error is an example of systematic error in instrumentation.
The Performance Test Standard PTC 19.1-2005 “Test Uncertainty”, published by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), discusses systematic and random errors in considerable detail. In fact, it conceptualizes its basic uncertainty categories in these terms.
Random errors lead to measurable values being inconsistent when repeated measures of a constant attribute or quantity are taken. The word random indicates that they are inherently unpredictable, and have null expected value, namely, they are scattered about the true value, and tend to have null arithmetic mean when a measurement is repeated several times with the same instrument. All measurements are prone to random error. Because random errors are reduced by re-measurement (making n times as many independent measurements will usually reduce random errors by a factor of √), it is worth repeating an experiment until random errors are similar in size to systematic errors. Additional measurements will be of little benefit, because the overall error cannot be reduced below the systematic error.
Random error can be caused by unpredictable fluctuations in the readings of a measurement apparatus, or in the experimenter's interpretation of the instrumental reading; these fluctuations may be in part due to interference of the environment with the measurement process. The concept of random error is closely related to the concept of precision. The higher the precision of a measurement instrument, the smaller the variability (standard deviation) of the fluctuations in its readings.
Sources of systematic error
Sources of systematic error may be imperfect calibration of measurement instruments (zero error), changes in the environment which interfere with the measurement process and sometimes imperfect methods of observation can be either zero error or percentage error. If you consider an experimenter taking a reading of the time period of a pendulum swinging past a fiducial marker: If their stop-watch or timer starts with 1 second on the clock then all of their results will be off by 1 second (zero error). If the experimenter repeats this experiment twenty times (starting at 1 second each time), then there will be a percentage error in the calculated average of their results; the final result will be slightly larger than the true period.
Distance measured by radar will be systematically overestimated if the slight slowing down of the waves in air is not accounted for. Incorrect zeroing of an instrument leading to a zero error is an example of systematic error in instrumentation.
Systematic errors may also be present in the result of an estimate based upon a mathematical model or physical law. For instance, the estimated oscillation frequency of a pendulum will be systematically in error if slight movement of the support is not accounted for.
Systematic errors can be either constant, or related (e.g. proportional or a percentage) to the actual value of the measured quantity, or even to the value of a different quantity (the reading of a ruler can be affected by environmental temperature). When it is constant, it is simply due to incorrect zeroing of the instrument. When it is not constant, it can change its sign. For instance, if a thermometer is affected by a proportional systematic error equal to 2% of the actual temperature, and the actual temperature is 200°, 0°, or −100°, the measured temperature will be 204° (systematic error = +4°), 0° (null systematic error) or −102° (systematic error = −2°), respectively. Thus, the temperature will be overestimated when it will be above zero, and underestimated when it will be below zero.
Systematic errors which change during an experiment (drift) are easier to detect. Measurements indicate trends with time rather than varying randomly about a mean. Drift is evident if a measurement of a constant quantity is repeated several times and the measurements drift one way during the experiment. If the next measurement is higher than the previous measurement as may occur if an instrument becomes warmer during the experiment then the measured quantity is variable and it is possible to detect a drift by checking the zero reading during the experiment as well as at the start of the experiment (indeed, the zero reading is a measurement of a constant quantity). If the zero reading is consistently above or below zero, a systematic error is present. If this cannot be eliminated, potentially by resetting the instrument immediately before the experiment then it needs to be allowed by subtracting its (possibly time-varying) value from the readings, and by taking it into account while assessing the accuracy of the measurement.
If no pattern in a series of repeated measurements is evident, the presence of fixed systematic errors can only be found if the measurements are checked, either by measuring a known quantity or by comparing the readings with readings made using a different apparatus, known to be more accurate. For example, if you think of the timing of a pendulum using an accurate stopwatch several times you are given readings randomly distributed about the mean. A systematic error is present if the stopwatch is checked against the 'speaking clock' of the telephone system and found to be running slow or fast. Clearly, the pendulum timings need to be corrected according to how fast or slow the stopwatch was found to be running.
Systematic errors can also be detected by measuring already known quantities. For example, a spectrometer fitted with a diffraction grating may be checked by using it to measure the wavelength of the D-lines of the sodium electromagnetic spectrum which are at 600 nm and 589.6 nm. The measurements may be used to determine the number of lines per millimetre of the diffraction grating, which can then be used to measure the wavelength of any other spectral line.
Constant systematic errors are very difficult to deal with as their effects are only observable if they can be removed. Such errors cannot be removed by repeating measurements or averaging large numbers of results. A common method to remove systematic error is through calibration of the measurement instrument.
Sources of random error
The random or stochastic error in a measurement is the error that is random from one measurement to the next. Stochastic errors tend to be normally distributed when the stochastic error is the sum of many independent random errors because of the central limit theorem. Stochastic errors added to a regression equation account for the variation in Y that cannot be explained by the included Xs.
The term "observational error" is also sometimes used to refer to response errors and some other types of non-sampling error. In survey-type situations, these errors can be mistakes in the collection of data, including both the incorrect recording of a response and the correct recording of a respondent's inaccurate response. These sources of non-sampling error are discussed in Salant and Dillman (1995) and Bland and Altman (1996) 
- Errors and residuals in statistics
- Replication (statistics)
- Statistical theory
- Regression dilution
- Test method
- Propagation of uncertainty
- Instrument error
- Measurement uncertainty
- Errors-in-variables models
- Dodge, Y. (2003) The Oxford Dictionary of Statistical Terms, OUP. ISBN 0-19-920613-9
- John Robert Taylor (1999). An Introduction to Error Analysis: The Study of Uncertainties in Physical Measurements. University Science Books. p. 94, §4.1. ISBN 0-935702-75-X.
- Salant, P., and D. A. Dillman. "How to conduct your survey." (1994).
- Bland, J. Martin, and Douglas G. Altman. "Statistics notes: measurement error." Bmj 313.7059 (1996): 744.
Errors of Measurement in Statistics, W. G. Cochran, Technometrics, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Nov., 1968), pp. 637–666: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1267450