Get access

The empirical coverage of confidence intervals: Point estimates and confidence intervals for confidence levels


  • Robert Schall

    Corresponding author
    • Department of Mathematical Statistics and Actuarial Science, University of the Free State, P.O. Box 339 (IB75), Bloemfontein, South Africa
    Search for more papers by this author

Corresponding author: e-mail:, Phone: +27-51-401-2945, Fax: +27-51-444-2024.


Many confidence intervals calculated in practice are potentially not exact, either because the requirements for the interval estimator to be exact are known to be violated, or because the (exact) distribution of the data is unknown. If a confidence interval is approximate, the crucial question is how well its true coverage probability approximates its intended coverage probability. In this paper we propose to use the bootstrap to calculate an empirical estimate for the (true) coverage probability of a confidence interval. In the first instance, the empirical coverage can be used to assess whether a given type of confidence interval is adequate for the data at hand. More generally, when planning the statistical analysis of future trials based on existing data pools, the empirical coverage can be used to study the coverage properties of confidence intervals as a function of type of data, sample size, and analysis scale, and thus inform the statistical analysis plan for the future trial. In this sense, the paper proposes an alternative to the problematic pretest of the data for normality, followed by selection of the analysis method based on the results of the pretest. We apply the methodology to a data pool of bioequivalence studies, and in the selection of covariance patterns for repeated measures data.