Bayes, reproducibility and the Quest for Truth

Don Fraser, Mylène Bédard, and three coauthors have written a paper with the above dramatic title in Statistical Science about the reproducibility of Bayesian inference in the framework of what they call a mathematical prior. Connecting with the earlier quick-and-dirty tag attributed by Don to Bayesian credible intervals.

“We provide simple (…) counter-examples to general claims that Bayes can offer accuracy for statistical inference. To obtain this accuracy with Bayes, more effort is required compared to recent likelihood methods (…) [and] accuracy beyond first order is routinely not available (…) An alternative is to view default Bayes as an exploratory technique and then ask does it do as it overtly claims? Is it reproducible as understood in contemporary science? (…) No one has answers although speculative claims abound.” (p. 1)

The early stages of the paper questions the nature of a prior distribution in terms of objectivity and reproducibility, which strikes me as a return to older debates on the nature of probability. And of a dubious insistence on the reality of a prior when the said reality is customarily and implicitly assumed for the sampling distribution. While we “can certainly ask how [a posterior] quantile relates to the true value of the parameter”, I see no compelling reason why the associated quantile should be endowed with a frequentist coverage meaning, i.e., be more than a normative indication of the deviation from the true value. (Assuming there is such a parameter.) To consider that the credible interval of interest can be “objectively” assessed by simulation experiments evaluating its coverage is thus doomed from the start (since there is not reason for the nominal coverage) and situated on the wrong plane since it stems from the hypothetical frequentist model for a range of parameter values. Instead I find simulations from (generating) models useful in a general ABC sense, namely by producing realisations from the predictive one can assess at which degree of roughness the data is compatible with the formal construct. To bind reproducibility to the frequentist framework thus sounds wrong [to me] as being model-based. In other words, I do not find the definition of reproducibility used in the paper to be objective (literally bouncing back from Gelman and Hennig Read Paper)

At several points in the paper, the legal consequences of using a subjective prior are evoked as legally binding and implicitly as dangerous. With the example of the L’Aquila expert trial. I have trouble seeing the relevance of this entry as an adverse lawyer is as entitled to attack the expert on her or his sampling model. More fundamentally, I feel quite uneasy about bringing this type of argument into the debate!

One Response to “Bayes, reproducibility and the Quest for Truth”

  1. freak(wentists) !

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