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The Search for Certainty - On the Clash of Science and Philosophy of Probability April 2009

# The Search for Certainty - On the Clash of Science and Philosophy of Probability April 2009

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08/17/2013

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There are (at least) two reasons why some Bayesian statisticians embrace
the subjective philosophy. One is the mistaken belief that in some cases,
there is no scientiﬁc justiﬁcation for the use of the prior distribution except
that it represents the subjective views of the decision maker. I argued that
the prior is sometimes based on (L1)-(L5), sometimes it is the seed of an
iterative method, and sometimes it is the result of informal processing of
information, using (L1)-(L5). The justiﬁcation for all of these choices of
the prior is quite simple—predictions based on posterior distributions can
be reliable.

Another reason for the popularity of the subjective philosophy among
some Bayesians is that the subjective theory provides an excellent excuse
for using the expected value of the (utility of) gain as the only determinant
of the value of a decision. As I argued in Secs. 4.1.1, 4.4.2 and 4.5, this
is an illusion based on a clever linguistic manipulation—the identiﬁcation
of decisions and probabilities is true only by a philosopher’s ﬁat. If prob-
abilities are derived from decisions, there is no reason to think that they
represent anything in the real world. The argument in support of using
the expected value is circular—probabilities are used to encode a rational
choice of decisions and then decisions are justiﬁed by appealing to thus
generated probabilities.
Bayesian statisticians often point out that their methods “work” and
this proves the scientiﬁc value of the Bayesian theory. Clearly, this is a
It is obvious that if prior distributions had been chosen in a considerably
diﬀerent way, the results would not have been equally impressive. Hence,
prior distributions have hardly the status of arbitrary opinions. They are
subjective only in the sense that a lot of personal eﬀort went into their
creation.

One could say that (some) Bayesian statisticians are victims of the clas-
sical statisticians’ propaganda. They believe in the criticism directed at
the Bayesian statistics, saying that subjectivity and science do not mix. As
a reaction to this criticism, they try to justify using subjective priors by
invoking de Finetti’s philosophical theory. In fact, using subjective priors
is just ﬁne because the whole science is subjective in the same sense as
subjective priors are. Science is about matching idealized theories with the
real world, and the match is necessarily imperfect and subjective. Bayesian
priors are not any more subjective than, for example, assumptions made by

March 24, 2009 12:3

World Scientiﬁc Book - 9in x 6in

Search4Certainty

192

The Search for Certainty

physicist about the Big Bang. The only thing that matters in all sciences,
including statistics, is the quality of predictions.

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