Bureau international des poids et mesures [bayésiennes?]

The workshop at the BIPM on measurement uncertainty was certainly most exciting, first by its location in the Parc de Saint Cloud in classical buildings overlooking the Seine river in a most bucolic manner…and second by its mostly Bayesian flavour. The recommendations that the workshop addressed are about revisions in the current GUM, which stands for the Guide to the Expression of Uncertainty in Measurement. The discussion centred on using a more Bayesian approach than in the earlier version, with the organisers of the workshop and leaders of the revision apparently most in favour of that move. “Knowledge-based pdfs” came into the discussion as an attractive notion since it rings a Bayesian bell, especially when associated with probability as a degree of belief and incorporating the notion of an a priori probability distribution. And propagation of errors. Or even more when mentioning the removal of frequentist validations. What I gathered from the talks is the perspective drifting away from central limit approximations to more realistic representations, calling for Monte Carlo computations. There is also a lot I did not get about conventions, codes and standards. Including a short debate about the different meanings on Monte Carlo, from simulation technique to calculation method (as for confidence intervals). And another discussion about replacing the old formula for estimating sd from the Normal to the Student’s t case. A change that remains highly debatable since the Student’s t assumption is as shaky as the Normal one. What became clear [to me] during the meeting is that a rather heated debate is currently taking place about the need for a revision, with some members of the six (?) organisations involved arguing against Bayesian or linearisation tools.

This became even clearer during our frequentist versus Bayesian session with a first talk so outrageously anti-Bayesian it was hilarious! Among other things, the notion that “fixing” the data was against the principles of physics (the speaker was a physicist), that the only randomness in a Bayesian coin tossing was coming from the prior, that the likelihood function was a subjective construct, that the definition of the posterior density was a generalisation of Bayes’ theorem [generalisation found in… Bayes’ 1763 paper then!], that objective Bayes methods were inconsistent [because Jeffreys’ prior produces an inadmissible estimator of μ²!], that the move to Bayesian principles in GUM would cost the New Zealand economy 5 billion dollars [hopefully a frequentist estimate!], &tc., &tc. The second pro-frequentist speaker was by comparison much much more reasonable, although he insisted on showing Bayesian credible intervals do not achieve a nominal frequentist coverage, using a sort of fiducial argument distinguishing x=X+ε from X=x+ε that I missed… A lack of achievement that is fine by my standards. Indeed, a frequentist confidence interval provides a coverage guarantee either for a fixed parameter (in which case the Bayesian approach achieves better coverage by constant updating) or a varying parameter (in which case the frequency of proper inclusion is of no real interest!). The first Bayesian speaker was Tony O’Hagan, who summarily shred the first talk to shreds. And also criticised GUM2 for using reference priors and maxent priors. I am afraid my talk was a bit too exploratory for the audience (since I got absolutely no question!) In retrospect, I should have given an into to reference priors.

An interesting specificity of a workshop on metrology and measurement is that they are hard stickers to schedule, starting and finishing right on time. When a talk finished early, we waited until the intended time to the next talk. Not even allowing for extra discussion. When the only overtime and Belgian speaker ran close to 10 minutes late, I was afraid he would (deservedly) get lynched! He escaped unscathed, but may (and should) not get invited again..!

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