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Frequentist inference only seems easy

Two of the most common methods of statistical inference are frequentism and Bayesianism (see Bayesian and Frequentist Approaches: Ask the Right Question for some good discussion). In both cases we are attempting to perform reliable inference of unknown quantities from related observations. And in both cases inference is made possible by introducing and reasoning over well-behaved distributions of values.

As a first example, consider the problem of trying to estimate the speed of light from a series of experiments.

In this situation the frequentist method quietly does some heavy philosophical lifting before you even start work. Under the frequentist interpretation since the speed of light is thought to have a single value it does not make sense to model it as having a prior distribution of possible values over any non-trivial range. To get the ability to infer, frequentist philosophy considers the act of measurement repeatable and introduces very subtle concepts such as confidence intervals. The frequentist statement that a series of experiments places the speed of light in vacuum at 300,000,000 meters a second plus or minus 1,000,000 meters a second with 95% confidence does not mean there is a 95% chance that the actual speed of light is in the interval 299,000,000 to 301,000,000 (the common incorrect recollection of what a confidence interval is). It means if the procedure that generated the interval were repeated on new data, then 95% of the time the speed of light would be in the interval produced: which may not be the interval we are looking at right now. Frequentist procedures are typically easy on the practitioner (all of the heavy philosophic work has already been done) and result in simple procedures and calculations (through years of optimization of practice).

Bayesian procedures on the other hand are philosophically much simpler, but require much more from the user (production and acceptance of priors). The Bayesian philosophy is: given a generative model, a complete prior distribution (detailed probabilities of the unknown value posited before looking at the current experimental data) of the quantity to be estimated, and observations: then inference is just a matter of calculating the complete posterior distribution of the quantity to be estimated (by correct application of Bayes’ Law). Supply a bad model or bad prior beliefs on possible values of the speed of light and you get bad results (and it is your fault, not the methodology’s fault). The Bayesian method seems to ask more, but you have to remember it is trying to supply more (complete posterior distribution, versus subjunctive confidence intervals).

In this article we are going to work a simple (but important) problem where (for once) the Bayesian calculations are in fact easier than the frequentist ones. Continue reading Frequentist inference only seems easy