Deconstructing Gelman, Part 1: “A Bayesian wants everybody else to be a non-Bayesian.”

I was to have philosophically deconstructed a few paragraphs from (the last couple of sections) in a column Andrew Gelman sent me on “Ethics and the statistical use of prior information”[i]. The discussion begins with my Sept 12 post, and follows through several posts over the second half of September (see [ii]), all by way of background. But I got called away before finishing the promised deconstruction, and it was only this evening that I tried to wade through a circuitous swamp of remarks. I will just post the first part (of 2 or perhaps 3?), which is already too long.

Since I have a tendency to read articles from back to front, on a first read at least, let me begin with his last section titled:  “A Bayesian wants everybody else to be a non-Bayesian.”  Surely that calls for philosophical deconstruction, if anything does. It seems at the very least an exceptional view. Whether it’s widely held I can’t say (please advise). But suppose it’s true: Bayesians are publicly calling on everybody to use Bayesian methods, even though, deep down, they really, really hope everybody else won’t blend everything together before they can use the valid parts from the data—and they really, really hope that everybody else will provide the full panoply of information about what happened in other experiments, and what background theories are well corroborated, and about the precision of the instruments relied upon, and about other experiments that appear to conflict with the current one and with each other, etc., etc. Suppose that Bayesians actually would prefer, and are relieved to find, that, despite their exhortations, “everybody else” doesn’t report their posterior probabilities (whichever version of Bayesianism they are using) because then they can introduce their own background and figure out what is and is not warranted (in whatever sense seems appropriate).

At first glance, I am tempted to say that I don’t think Gelman really believes this statement himself if it were taken literally. Since he calls himself a Bayesian, at least of a special sort, then if he is wearing his Bayesian hat when he advocates others be non-Bayesian, then the practice of advocating others be non-Bayesian would itself be a Bayesian practice (not a non-Bayesian practice). But we philosophers know the danger of suggesting that authors under our scrutiny do not mean what they say—we may be missing their meaning and interpreting their words in a manner that is implausible. Though we may think, through our flawed interpretation, that they cannot possibly mean what they say, what we have done is substitute a straw view for the actual view (the straw man fallacy). (Note: You won’t get that I am mirroring Gelman unless you look at the article that began this deconstruction here.) Rule #2 of this blog[iii] is to interpret any given position in the most generous way possible; to do otherwise is to weaken our critical evaluation of it. This requires that we try to imagine a plausible reading, taking into account valid background information (e.g., other writings) that might bolster plausibility. This, at any rate, is what we teach our students in philosophy. So to begin with, what does Gelman actually say in the passage (in Section 4)?

“Bayesian inference proceeds by taking the likelihoods from different data sources and then combining them with a prior distribution (or, more generally, a hierarchical model). The likelihood is key. . . . No funny stuff, no posterior distributions, just the likelihood. . . . I don’t want everybody coming to me with their posterior distribution—I’d just have to divide away their prior distributions before getting to my own analysis. Sort of like a trial, where the judge wants to hear what everybody saw—not their individual inferences, but their raw data.” (p.5)

So if this is what he means by being a non-Bayesian, then his assertion that “a Bayesian wants everybody else to be a non-Bayesian” seems to mean that Bayesians want others to basically report their likelihoods. But again, if Gelman is wearing his Bayesian hat when he advocates others not wear theirs, i.e., be non-Bayesian, then his advising that everybody else not be Bayesian (in the sense of not combining priors and likelihoods), is itself a Bayesian practice (not a non-Bayesian practice). So either Gelman is not wearing his Bayesian hat when he recommends this, or his claim is self-contradictory—and I certainly do not want to attribute an inconsistent position to him. Moreover, I am quite certain that he would not advance any such inconsistent position.

Now, I do have some background knowledge. To ignore it is to fail to supply the most generous interpretation. Our background information—that is, Gelman’s (2011) RMM paper [iv]—tells me that he rejects the classic inductive philosophy that he has (correctly) associated with the definition of Bayesianism found on Wikipedia:

“Our key departure from the mainstream Bayesian view (as expressed, for example, [in Wikipedia]) is that we do not attempt to assign posterior probabilities to models or to select or average over them using posterior probabilities. Instead, we use predictive checks to compare models to data and use the information thus learned about anomalies to motivate model improvements” (p. 71).

So now Gelman’s assertion that “a Bayesian wants everybody else to be a non-Bayesian” makes sense and is not self-contradictory. Bayesian, in the term non-Bayesian, would mean something like a standard inductive Bayesian (where priors can be subjective or non-subjective). Gelman’s non-standard Bayesian wants everybody else not to be standard inductive Bayesians, but rather, something more akin to a likelihoodist. (I don’t know whether he wants only the likelihoods rather than the full panoply of background information, but I will return to this.) If Gelman’s Bayesian is not going to assign posterior probabilities to models, or select or average over them using posterior probabilities, then it’s pretty clear he will not find it useful to hear a report of your posterior probabilities. To allude to his trial analogy, the judge surely doesn’t want to hear your posterior probability in Ralph’s guilt, if he doesn’t even think it’s the proper way of couching inferences. Perhaps the judge finds it essential to know whether mistaken judgments of the pieces of evidence surrounding Ralph’s guilt have been well or poorly ruled out.That would be to require an error probabilistic assessment.

But a question might be raised: By “a Bayesian,” doesn’t Gelman clearly mean Bayesians in general, and not just one? And if he means all Bayesians, it would be wrong to think, as I have, that he was alluding to non-standard Bayesians (i.e., those wearing a hat of which Gelman approves). But there is no reason to suppose he means all Bayesians rather than all Bayesians who reject standard, Wiki-style Bayesianism, but instead favor something closer to the view in Gelman 2011, among other places.

Having gotten this far, however, I worry about using the view in Gelman 2011 to deconstruct the passages in the current article, in which, speaking of a Bayesian combining prior distributions and likelihoods, Gelman sounds more like a standard Bayesian. It would not help that he may be alluding to Bayesians in general for purposes of the article, because it is in this article that we find the claim: “A Bayesian wants everybody else to be a non-Bayesian.” So despite my attempts to sensibly deconstruct him, it appears that we are back to the initial problem, in which his claim that a Bayesian wants everybody else to be a non-Bayesian looks self-contradictory or at best disingenuous—and this in a column on ethics in statistics!

But we are not necessarily led to that conclusion!  Stay tuned for part 2, and part 3…..

(On how to do a philosophical analysis see here.)

[i]Gelman, A. “Ethics and the statistical use of prior information”

[ii] The main posts, following the first one, were:

More on using background info (9/15/12)
Statistics and ESP research (Diaconis) (9/22/12)
Insevere tests and pseudoscience (9/25/12)
Levels of inquiry (9/26/12)

[iii] This the Philosopher’s rule of “generous interpretation”, first introduced in this post.

[iv] Gelman, A. (2011).  “Induction and Deduction in Bayesian Data Analysis“, Rationality,  Markets, and Morals (RMM) 2, 67-78.

Categories: Background knowledge, Philosophy of Statistics, Statistics

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2 thoughts on “Deconstructing Gelman, Part 1: “A Bayesian wants everybody else to be a non-Bayesian.”

  1. guest

    Isn’t it simpler than this? Sure, Gelman, like many others, wants everyone to report likelihoods – or even better, to actually make their data available. But the likelihood, or (better) the data, is not Bayesian, just like it’s not frequentist – it’s just a statement of what was observed.

    There’s no contradiction with reporting these observations and doing Bayesian analysis; one can do Bayesian analysis with the likelihood/data and whatever priors are held.

    The Kanazawa example illustrates this; giving out the confidence interval as a simple report of the data (or likelihood) is fine, but to interpret the data, a Bayesian approach that brings in the prior information is helpful. (Please note I’m not claiming it’s the only helpful approach, a point Gelman has made repeatedly.)

    • Thanks guest. Sure…and I’ll get to this in a minute (my next post), but of course even reporting a likelihood is scarcely to merely report “what was observed”.

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