Bayesianism — preposterous mumbo jumbo

23 July, 2014 at 09:46 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 2 Comments

Neoclassical economics nowadays usually assumes that agents that have to make choices under conditions of uncertainty behave according to Bayesian rules (preferably the ones axiomatized by Ramsey (1931), de Finetti (1937) or Savage (1954)) – that is, they maximize expected utility with respect to some subjective probability measure that is continually updated according to Bayes theorem. If not, they are supposed to be irrational, and ultimately – via some “Dutch book” or “money pump” argument – susceptible to being ruined by some clever “bookie”.

bayes_dog_tshirtBayesianism reduces questions of rationality to questions of internal consistency (coherence) of beliefs, but – even granted this questionable reductionism – do rational agents really have to be Bayesian? As I have been arguing elsewhere (e. g. here and here) there is no strong warrant for believing so.

In many of the situations that are relevant to economics one could argue that there is simply not enough of adequate and relevant information to ground beliefs of a probabilistic kind, and that in those situations it is not really possible, in any relevant way, to represent an individual’s beliefs in a single probability measure.

The view that Bayesian decision theory is only genuinely valid in a small world was asserted very firmly by Leonard Savage when laying down the principles of the theory in his path-breaking Foundations of Statistics. He makes the distinction between small and large worlds in a folksy way by quoting the proverbs ”Look before you leap” and ”Cross that bridge when you come to it”. You are in a small world if it is feasible always to look before you leap. You are in a large world if there are some bridges that you cannot cross before you come to them.

As Savage comments, when proverbs conflict, it is proverbially true that there is some truth in both—that they apply in different contexts. He then argues that some decision situations are best modeled in terms of a small world, but others are not. He explicitly rejects the idea that all worlds can be treated as small as both ”ridiculous” and ”preposterous” … Frank Knight draws a similar distinction between making decision under risk or uncertainty …

Bayesianism is understood [here] to be the philosophical principle that Bayesian methods are always appropriate in all decision problems, regardless of whether the relevant set of states in the relevant world is large or small. For example, the world in which financial economics is set is obviously large in Savage’s sense, but the suggestion that there might be something questionable about the standard use of Bayesian updating in financial models is commonly greeted with incredulity or laughter.

Someone who acts as if Bayesianism were correct will be said to be a Bayesianite. It is important to distinguish a Bayesian like myself—someone convinced by Savage’s arguments that Bayesian decision theory makes sense in small worlds—from a Bayesianite. In particular, a Bayesian need not join the more extreme Bayesianites in proceeding as though:

• All worlds are small.
• Rationality endows agents with prior probabilities.
• Rational learning consists simply in using Bayes’ rule to convert a set of prior
probabilities into posterior probabilities after registering some new data.

Bayesianites are often understandably reluctant to make an explicit commitment to these principles when they are stated so baldly, because it then becomes evi-dent that they are implicitly claiming that David Hume was wrong to argue that the principle of scientific induction cannot be justified by rational argument …

cartoon05Bayesianites believe that the subjective probabilities of Bayesian decision theory can be reinterpreted as logical probabilities without any hassle. Its adherents therefore hold that Bayes’ rule is the solution to the problem of scientific induction. No support for such a view is to be found in Savage’s theory—nor in the earlier theories of Ramsey, de Finetti, or von Neumann and Morgenstern. Savage’s theory is entirely and exclusively a consistency theory. It says nothing about how decision-makers come to have the beliefs ascribed to them; it asserts only that, if the decisions taken are consistent (in a sense made precise by a list of axioms), then they act as though maximizing expected utility relative to a subjective probability distribution …

A reasonable decision-maker will presumably wish to avoid inconsistencies. A Bayesianite therefore assumes that it is enough to assign prior beliefs to as decisionmaker, and then forget the problem of where beliefs come from. Consistency then forces any new data that may appear to be incorporated into the system via Bayesian updating. That is, a posterior distribution is obtained from the prior distribution using Bayes’ rule.

The naiveté of this approach doesn’t consist in using Bayes’ rule, whose validity as a piece of algebra isn’t in question. It lies in supposing that the problem of where the priors came from can be quietly shelved.

Savage did argue that his descriptive theory of rational decision-making could be of practical assistance in helping decision-makers form their beliefs, but he didn’t argue that the decision-maker’s problem was simply that of selecting a prior from a limited stock of standard distributions with little or nothing in the way of soulsearching. His position was rather that one comes to a decision problem with a whole set of subjective beliefs derived from one’s previous experience that may or may not be consistent …

But why should we wish to adjust our gut-feelings using Savage’s methodology? In particular, why should a rational decision-maker wish to be consistent? After all, scientists aren’t consistent, on the grounds that it isn’t clever to be consistently wrong. When surprised by data that shows current theories to be in error, they seek new theories that are inconsistent with the old theories. Consistency, from this point of view, is only a virtue if the possibility of being surprised can somehow be eliminated. This is the reason for distinguishing between large and small worlds. Only in the latter is consistency an unqualified virtue.

Ken Binmore

Say you have come to learn (based on own experience and tons of data) that the probability of you becoming unemployed in the US is 10%. Having moved to another country (where you have no own experience and no data) you have no information on unemployment and a fortiori nothing to help you construct any probability estimate on. A Bayesian would, however, argue that you would have to assign probabilities to the mutually exclusive alternative outcomes and that these have to add up to 1, if you are rational. That is, in this case – and based on symmetry – a rational individual would have to assign probability 10% to becoming unemployed and 90% of becoming employed.

Its-the-lawThat feels intuitively wrong though, and I guess most people would agree. Bayesianism cannot distinguish between symmetry-based probabilities from information and symmetry-based probabilities from an absence of information. In these kinds of situations most of us would rather say that it is simply irrational to be a Bayesian and better instead to admit that we “simply do not know” or that we feel ambiguous and undecided. Arbitrary an ungrounded probability claims are more irrational than being undecided in face of genuine uncertainty, so if there is not sufficient information to ground a probability distribution it is better to acknowledge that simpliciter, rather than pretending to possess a certitude that we simply do not possess.

I think this critique of Bayesianism is in accordance with the views of KeynesA Treatise on Probability (1921) and General Theory (1937). According to Keynes we live in a world permeated by unmeasurable uncertainty – not quantifiable stochastic risk – which often forces us to make decisions based on anything but rational expectations. Sometimes we “simply do not know.” Keynes would not have accepted the view of Bayesian economists, according to whom expectations “tend to be distributed, for the same information set, about the prediction of the theory.” Keynes, rather, thinks that we base our expectations on the confidence or “weight” we put on different events and alternatives. To Keynes expectations are a question of weighing probabilities by “degrees of belief”, beliefs that have preciously little to do with the kind of stochastic probabilistic calculations made by the rational agents modeled by Bayesian economists.

51DD5REVJFLThe bias toward the superficial and the response to extraneous influences on research are both examples of real harm done in contemporary social science by a roughly Bayesian paradigm of statistical inference as the epitome of empirical argument. For instance the dominant attitude toward the sources of black-white differential in United States unemployment rates (routinely the rates are in a two to one ratio) is “phenomenological.” The employment differences are traced to correlates in education, locale, occupational structure, and family background. The attitude toward further, underlying causes of those correlations is agnostic … Yet on reflection, common sense dictates that racist attitudes and institutional racism must play an important causal role. People do have beliefs that blacks are inferior in intelligence and morality, and they are surely influenced by these beliefs in hiring decisions … Thus, an overemphasis on Bayesian success in statistical inference discourages the elaboration of a type of account of racial disadavantages that almost certainly provides a large part of their explanation.



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  1. If prior belief’s do not change, then there is a personality difference that is inculcated and summarized, perhaps, by Mesquita’s differentiation of the Hedgehog and of the Fox prediction styles. However, it does seem irrational to posit that consequences do not inform future decisions. Also, if we use social science or historical studies as benchmarks, then we should adjust our beliefs on the basis of new information, not doing so should indicate a dysfunctionality or incompetence.

    I do appreciate the small world – large world difference but I am not convinced that people who do not update their beliefs on the basis of evidence are thinking rationally even if exceptions are made for large world probabilities. In my experience, those with fixed ideas in the face of contradictory evidence are unconvinceable because they are unreasonable and perhaps stupid.

  2. It must be comforting to have a short equation that sorts out all the difficulties of life. That such a life will likely be rather limited is a secondary concern, I suppose.

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