A low-powered statistical analysis of this blog—nearing its 2-year anniversary!—reveals that the topic to crop up most often—either front and center, or lurking in the bushes–is that of “background information”. The following was one of my early posts, back in Oct.30, 2011:
October 30, 2011 (London). Increasingly, I am discovering that one of the biggest sources of confusion about the foundations of statistics has to do with what it means or should mean to use “background knowledge” and “judgment” in making statistical and scientific inferences. David Cox and I address this in our “Conversation” in RMM (2011); it is one of the three or four topics in that special volume that I am keen to take up.
Insofar as humans conduct science and draw inferences, and insofar as learning about the world is not reducible to a priori deductions, it is obvious that “human judgments” are involved. True enough, but too trivial an observation to help us distinguish among the very different ways judgments should enter according to contrasting inferential accounts. When Bayesians claim that frequentists do not use or are barred from using background information, what they really mean is that frequentists do not use prior probabilities of hypotheses, at least when those hypotheses are regarded as correct or incorrect, if only approximately. So, for example, we would not assign relative frequencies to the truth of hypotheses such as (1) prion transmission is via protein folding without nucleic acid, or (2) the deflection of light is approximately 1.75” (as if, as Pierce puts it, “universes were as plenty as blackberries”). How odd it would be to try to model these hypotheses as themselves having distributions: to us, statistical hypotheses assign probabilities to outcomes or values of a random variable.
However, quite a lot of background information goes into designing, carrying out, and analyzing inquiries into hypotheses regarded as correct or incorrect. For a frequentist, that is where background knowledge enters. There is no reason to suppose that the background required in order sensibly to generate, interpret, and draw inferences about H should—or even can—enter through prior probabilities for H itself! Of course, presumably, Bayesians also require background information in order to determine that “data x” have been observed, to determine how to model and conduct the inquiry, and to check the adequacy of statistical models for the purposes of the inquiry. So the Bayesian prior only purports to add some other kind of judgment, about the degree of belief in H. It does not get away from the other background judgments that frequentists employ.
This relates to a second point that came up in our conversation when Cox asked, “Do we want to put in a lot of information external to the data, or as little as possible?” Continue reading