My Trouble with Bayes

The MultidisciplinarianIn past consulting work I’ve wrestled with subjective probability values derived from expert opinion. Subjective probability is an interpretation of probability based on a degree of belief (i.e., hypothetical willingness to bet on a position) as opposed a value derived from measured frequencies of occurrences (related posts: Belief in Probability, More Philosophy for Engineers). Subjective probability is of interest when failure data is sparse or nonexistent, as was the data on catastrophic loss of a space shuttle due to seal failure. Bayesianism is one form of inductive logic aimed at refining subjective beliefs based on Bayes Theorem and the idea of rational coherence of beliefs. A NASA handbook explains Bayesian inference as the process of obtaining a conclusion based on evidence,  “Information about a hypothesis beyond the observable empirical data about that hypothesis is included in the inference.” Easier said than done, for reasons listed below.

Bayes Theorem itself is uncontroversial. It is a mathematical expression relating the probability of A given that B is true to the probability of B given that A is true and the individual probabilities of A and B:

P(A|B) = P(B|A) x P(A) / P(B)

If we’re trying to confirm a hypothesis (H) based on evidence (E), we can substitute H and E for A and B:

P(H|E) = P(E|H) x P(H) / P(E)

To be rationally coherent, you’re not allowed to believe the probability of heads to be .6 while believing the probability of tails to be .5; the sum of chances of all possible outcomes must sum to exactly one. Further, for Bayesians, the logical coherence just mentioned (i.e., avoidance of Dutch book arguments) must hold across time (synchronic coherence) such that once new evidence E on a hypothesis H is found, your believed probability for H given E should equal your prior conditional probability for H given E.

Plenty of good sources explain Bayesian epistemology and practice far better than I could do here. Bayesianism is controversial in science and engineering circles, for some good reasons. Bayesianism’s critics refer to it as a religion. This is unfair. Bayesianism is, however, like most religions, a belief system. My concern for this post is the problems with Bayesianism that I personally encounter in risk analyses. Adherents might rightly claim that problems I encounter with Bayes stem from poor implementation rather than from flaws in the underlying program. Good horse, bad jockey? Perhaps.

Problem 1. Subjectively objective
Bayesianism is an interesting mix of subjectivity and objectivity. It imposes no constraints on the subject of belief and very few constraints on the prior probability values. Hypothesis confirmation, for a Bayesian, is inherently quantitative, but initial hypotheses probabilities and the evaluation of evidence is purely subjective. For Bayesians, evidence E confirms or disconfirms hypothesis H only after we establish how probable H was in the first place. That is, we start with a prior probability for H. After the evidence, confirmation has occurred if the probability of H given E is higher than the prior probability of H, i.e., P(H|E) > P(H). Conversely, E disconfirms H when P(H|E) < P(H). These equations and their math leave business executives impressed with the rigor of objective calculation while directing their attention away from the subjectivity of both the hypothesis and its initial prior.

2. Rational formulation of the prior
Problem 2 follows from the above. Paranoid, crackpot hypotheses can still maintain perfect probabilistic coherence. Excluding crackpots, rational thinkers – more accurately, those with whom we agree – still may have an extremely difficult time distilling their beliefs, observations and observed facts of the world into a prior.

3. Conditionalization and old evidence
This is on everyone’s short list of problems with Bayes. In the simplest interpretation of Bayes, old evidence has zero confirming power. If evidence E was on the books long ago and it suddenly comes to light that H entails E, no change in the value of H follows. This seems odd – to most outsiders anyway. This problem gives rise to the game where we are expected to pretend we never knew about E and then judge how surprising (confirming) E would have been to H had we not know about it. As with the general matter of maintaining logical coherence required for the Bayesian program, it is extremely difficult to detach your knowledge of E from the rest of your knowing about the world. In engineering problem solving, discovering that H implies E is very common.

4. Equating increased probability with hypothesis confirmation.
My having once met Hillary Clinton arguably increases the probability that I may someday be her running mate; but few would agree that it is confirming evidence that I will do so. See Hempel’s raven paradox.

5. Stubborn stains in the priors
Bayesians, often citing success in the business of establishing and adjusting insurance premiums, report that the initial subjectivity (discussed in 1, above) fades away as evidence accumulates. They call this washing-out of priors. The frequentist might respond that with sufficient evidence your belief becomes irrelevant. With historical data (i.e., abundant evidence) they can calculate P of an unwanted event in a frequentist way: P = 1-e to the power -RT, roughly, P=RT for small products of exposure time T and failure rate R (exponential distribution). When our ability to find new evidence is limited, i.e., for modeling unprecedented failures, the prior does not get washed out.

6. The catch-all hypothesis
The denominator of Bayes Theorem, P(E), in practice, must be calculated as the sum of the probability of the evidence given the hypothesis plus the probability of the evidence given not the hypothesis:

P(E) = [P(E|H) x p(H)] + [P(E|~H) x P(~H)]

But ~H (“not H”) is not itself a valid hypothesis. It is a family of hypotheses likely containing what Donald Rumsfeld famously called unknown unknowns. Thus calculating the denominator P(E) forces you to pretend you’ve considered all contributors to ~H. So Bayesians can be lured into a state of false choice. The famous example of such a false choice in the history of science is Newton’s particle theory of light vs. Huygens’ wave theory of light. Hint: they are both wrong.

7. Deference to the loudmouth
This problem is related to no. 1 above, but has a much more corporate, organizational component. It can’t be blamed on Bayesianism but nevertheless plagues Bayesian implementations within teams. In the group formulation of any subjective probability, normal corporate dynamics govern the outcome. The most senior or deepest-voiced actor in the room drives all assignments of subjective probability. Social influence rules and the wisdom of the crowd succumbs to a consensus building exercise, precisely where consensus is unwanted. Seidenfeld, Kadane and Schervish begin “On the Shared Preferences of Two Bayesian Decision Makers” with the scholarly observation that an outstanding challenge for Bayesian decision theory is to extend its norms of rationality from individuals to groups. Their paper might have been illustrated with the famous photo of the exploding Challenger space shuttle. Bayesianism’s tolerance of subjective probabilities combined with organizational dynamics and the shyness of engineers can be a recipe for disaster of the Challenger sort.

All opinions welcome.

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  1. #1 by Anonymous on January 29, 2016 - 5:36 pm


    I read your blog post today on Bayes and think I disagree with you on #6. Your concern is in the calculation of P(E), but in my experience that’s the easiest bit! One, you can use a base rate instead of breaking it up as P(E|H)P(E) + P(E|~H)P(H). Maybe you can just estimate the number of people who have ever met Hilary Clinton and use that to determine P(person has met Clinton) when you want P(going to be her running mate | has met her).

    But even more practically, it’s easier than that! You already know that your probabilities of P(H_1 | E), P(H_2 | E), … have to sum to one (for a bunch of Hypotheses H_1, H_2, etc). Forget the denominator in Bayes’s rule and then just normalize the probabilities at the end so that they sum to one (it’s the same denominator in each term).

    What about the obnoxious ~H catch-all none-of-the-above hypothesis? Well, much of the time you can ignore it in practice (you’re developing software to drive your tractor around the farm, the tractor is certain it has SOME position, even if it’s not sure where it is). But if you can’t ignore it, make it a separate hypothesis just like H_1, H_2 and proceed as before. Now using this you have to do the first method and estimate P(E) as a whole, but then you get this freebie added in that tells you if ~H gets big, then you’re missing something in your model of the world and somethings going off (which is a pretty neat thing for a formula to tell you!).

    And, so long as your getting nicely independent data sources (ugh #3 is the worst), minor errors in your estimates of P(E) don’t really matter. It all has to converge eventually with enough information.


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