Bayesian inference gone awry

24 July, 2014 at 10:57 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 2 Comments

There is a nice YouTube video with Tony O’Hagan interviewing Dennis Lindley. Of course, Dennis is a legend and his impact on the field of statistics is huge.


At one point, Tony points out that some people liken Bayesian inference to a religion. Dennis claims this is false. Bayesian inference, he correctly points out, starts with some basic axioms and then the rest follows by deduction. This is logic, not religion.

I agree that the mathematics of Bayesian inference is based on sound logic. But, with all due respect, I think Dennis misunderstood the question. When people say that “Bayesian inference is like a religion,” they are not referring to the logic of Bayesian inference. They are referring to how adherents of Bayesian inference behave.

(As an aside, detractors of Bayesian inference do not deny the correctness of the logic. They just don’t think the axioms are relevant for data analysis. For example, no one doubts the axioms of Peano arithmetic. But that doesn’t imply that arithmetic is the foundation of statistical inference. But I digress.)

The vast majority of Bayesians are pragmatic, reasonable people. But there is a sub-group of die-hard Bayesians who do treat Bayesian inference like a religion. By this I mean:

They are very cliquish.
They have a strong emotional attachment to Bayesian inference.
They are overly sensitive to criticism.
They are unwilling to entertain the idea that Bayesian inference might have flaws.
When someone criticizes Bayes, they think that critic just “doesn’t get it.”
They mock people with differing opinions …

No evidence you can provide would ever make the die-hards doubt their ideas. To them, Sir David Cox, Brad Efron and other giants in our field who have doubts about Bayesian inference, are not taken seriously because they “just don’t get it.”

So is Bayesian inference a religion? For most Bayesians: no. But for the thin-skinned, inflexible die-hards who have attached themselves so strongly to their approach to inference that they make fun of, or get mad at, critics: yes, it is a religion.

Larry Wasserman

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2 Comments »

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  1. “The vast majority of Keynesians are pragmatic, reasonable people. But there is a sub-group of die-hard Keynesians who do treat Keynesianism like a religion. By this I mean:

    They are very cliquish.
    They have a strong emotional attachment to Keynes writings.
    They are overly sensitive to criticism.
    They are unwilling to entertain the idea that Keynes writings might have flaws.
    When someone criticizes Keynes, they think that critic just “doesn’t get it.”
    They mock people with differing opinions …

    No evidence you can provide would ever make the die-hards doubt their ideas. To them, Paul Krugman, Olivier Blanchard, and other giants in our field who have doubts about Keynesianism, are not taken seriously because they “just don’t get it.”

    So is Keynesianism a religion? For most Keynesians: no. But for the thin-skinned, inflexible post-Keynesians who have attached themselves so strongly to their approach to economics that they make fun of, or get mad at, critics: yes, it is a religion.”

    • A Cambridge economist with esprit — a rare thing nowadays!
      Hahaha. That was — for once — a good one, Pontus 🙂


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