Most studies only sample part of a population, so results don't fully represent the whole population. Any estimates obtained from the sample only approximate the population value. Confidence intervals allow statisticians to express how closely the sample estimate matches the true value in the whole population. Often they are expressed as 95% confidence intervals. Formally, a 95% confidence interval for a value is a range where, if the sampling and analysis were repeated under the same conditions (yielding a different dataset), the interval would include the true (population) value in 95% of all possible cases. This does *not* imply that the probability that the true value is in the confidence interval is 95%. From the frequentist perspective, such a claim does not even make sense, as the true value is not a random variable. Either the true value is or is not within the given interval. However, it is true that, before any data are sampled and given a plan for how to construct the confidence interval, the probability is 95% that the yet-to-be-calculated interval will cover the true value: at this point, the limits of the interval are yet-to-be-observed random variables. One approach that does yield an interval that can be interpreted as having a given probability of containing the true value is to use a credible interval from Bayesian statistics: this approach depends on a different way of interpreting what is meant by "probability", that is as a Bayesian probability.

In principle confidence intervals can be symmetrical or asymmetrical. An interval can be asymmetrical because it works as lower or upper bound for a parameter (left-sided interval or right sided interval), but it can also be asymmetrical because the two sided interval is built violating symmetry around the estimate. Sometimes the bounds for a confidence interval are reached asymptotically and these are used to approximate the true bounds.

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