on the origin of the Bayes factor

Alexander Etz and Eric-Jan Wagenmakers from the Department of Psychology of the University of Amsterdam just arXived a paper on the invention of the Bayes factor. In particular, they highlight the role of John Burdon Sanderson (J.B.S.) Haldane in the use of the central tool for Bayesian comparison of hypotheses. In short, Haldane used a Bayes factor before Jeffreys did!

“The idea of a significance test, I suppose, putting half the probability into a constant being 0, and distributing the other half over a range of possible values.”H. Jeffreys

The authors analyse Jeffreys’ 1935 paper on significance tests, which appears to be the very first occurrence of a Bayes factor in his bibliography, testing whether or not two probabilities are equal. They also show the roots of this derivation in earlier papers by Dorothy Wrinch and Harold Jeffreys. [As an “aside”, the early contributions of Dorothy Wrinch to the foundations of 20th Century Bayesian statistics are hardly acknowledged. A shame, when considering they constitute the basis and more of Jeffreys’ 1931 Scientific Inference, Jeffreys who wrote in her necrology “I should like to put on record my appreciation of the substantial contribution she made to [our joint] work, which is the basis of all my later work on scientific inference.” In retrospect, Dorothy Wrinch should have been co-author to this book…] As early as 1919. These early papers by Wrinch and Jeffreys are foundational in that they elaborate a construction of prior distributions that will eventually see the Jeffreys non-informative prior as its final solution [Jeffreys priors that should be called Lhostes priors according to Steve Fienberg, although I think Ernest Lhoste only considered a limited number of transformations in his invariance rule]. The 1921 paper contains de facto the Bayes factor but it does not appear to be advocated as a tool per se for conducting significance tests.

“The historical records suggest that Haldane calculated the first Bayes factor, perhaps almost by accident, before Jeffreys did.” A. Etz and E.J. Wagenmakers

As another interesting aside, the historical account points out that Jeffreys came out in 1931 with what is now called Haldane’s prior for a Binomial proportion, proposed in 1931 (when the paper was read) and in 1932 (when the paper was published in the Mathematical Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society) by Haldane. The problem tackled by Haldane is again a significance on a Binomial probability. Contrary to the authors, I find the original (quoted) text quite clear, with a prior split before a uniform on [0,½] and a point mass at ½. Haldane uses a posterior odd [of 34.7] to compare both hypotheses but… I see no trace in the quoted material that he ends up using the Bayes factor as such, that is as his decision rule. (I acknowledge decision rule is anachronistic in this setting.) On the side, Haldane also implements model averaging. Hence my reading of this reading of the 1930’s literature is that it remains unclear that Haldane perceived the Bayes factor as a Bayesian [another anachronism] inference tool, upon which [and only which] significance tests could be conducted. That Haldane had a remarkably modern view of splitting the prior according to two orthogonal measures and of correctly deriving the posterior odds is quite clear. With the very neat trick of removing the infinite integral at p=0, an issue that Jeffreys was fighting with at the same time. In conclusion, I would thus rephrase the major finding of this paper as Haldane should get the priority in deriving the Bayesian significance test for point null hypotheses, rather than in deriving the Bayes factor. But this may be my biased views of Bayes factors speaking there…

Another amazing fact I gathered from the historical work of Etz and Wagenmakers is that Haldane and Jeffreys were geographically very close while working on the same problem and hence should have known and referenced their respective works. Which did not happen.

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