What is Bayesian Statistics?

What is Bayesian Statistics?

Important notes: Below is a small, non-technical excerpt from the Stata 15 Bayesian Analysis Reference Manual. The full chapter is 540 pages long and highly detailed. Any copy/paste and editing errors are mine.

Please also note that apart from being a longtime Stata user, I have no connection to StataCorp. Stata is but one of many commercial and open-source software products I use in my work as a marketing researcher, statistician and data scientist.

A shortcoming of this otherwise excellent summary is that it omits discussion of empirical Bayes, approximate Bayes, HMC and other alternatives and variations that can simplify the use of Bayesian statistics and reduce computation time.

I should also mention that in the majority of the work I personally am involved with, frequentist approaches are simpler and faster to implement, and yield results very similar to those of Bayesian analyses. This will not be true for all statisticians, however, and Bayes has gotten me out of some tight spots.

Brief background

The principles of Bayesian analysis date back to the work of Thomas Bayes, who was a Presbyterian minister in Tunbridge Wells and Pierre Laplace, a French mathematician, astronomer, and physicist in the 18th century. Bayesian analysis started as a simple intuitive rule, named after Bayes, for updating beliefs on account of some evidence. For the next 200 years, however, Bayes’s rule was just an obscure idea. Along with the rapid development of the standard or frequentist statistics in 20th century,

Bayesian methodology was also developing, although with less attention and at a slower pace. One of the obstacles for the progress of Bayesian ideas has been the lasting opinion among mainstream statisticians of it being subjective. Another more-tangible problem for adopting Bayesian models in practice has been the lack of adequate computational resources. Nowadays, Bayesian statistics is widely accepted by researchers and practitioners as a valuable and feasible alternative.

Bayesian analysis proliferates in diverse areas including industry and government, but its application in sciences and engineering is particularly visible. Bayesian statistical inference is used in econometrics, education, epidemiology, engineering, genetics, social sciences, hydrology, quality management, atmospheric sciences and law to name a few.

Thomas Bayes (1701(?)–1761) was a Presbyterian minister with an interest in calculus, geometry, and probability theory. He was born in Hertfordshire, England. The son of a Nonconformist minister, Bayes was banned from English universities and so studied at Edinburgh University before becoming a clergyman himself. Only two works are attributed to Bayes during his lifetime, both published anonymously. He was admitted to the Royal Society in 1742 and never published thereafter.

The paper that gives us “Bayes’s Theorem” was published posthumously by Richard Price [SHOWN ABOVE]. The theorem has become an important concept for frequentist and Bayesian statisticians alike. However, the paper indicates that Bayes considered the theorem as relatively unimportant. His main interest appears to have been that probabilities were not fixed but instead followed some distribution. The notion, now foundational to Bayesian statistics, was largely ignored at the time.

Whether Bayes’s theorem is appropriately named is the subject of much debate. Price acknowledged that he had written the paper based on information he found in Bayes’s notebook, yet he never said how much he added beyond the introduction. Some scholars have also questioned whether Bayes’s notes represent original work or are the result of correspondence with other mathematicians of the time.

What is Bayesian analysis?

Bayesian analysis is a statistical analysis that answers research questions about unknown parameters of statistical models by using probability statements. Bayesian analysis rests on the assumption that all model parameters are random quantities and thus can incorporate prior knowledge. This assumption is in sharp contrast with the more traditional, also called frequentist, statistical inference where all parameters are considered unknown but fixed quantities. Bayesian analysis follows a simple rule of probability, the Bayes rule, which provides a formalism for combining prior information with evidence from the data at hand.

The Bayes rule is used to form the so called posterior distribution of model parameters. The posterior distribution results from updating the prior knowledge about model parameters with evidence from the observed data. Bayesian analysis uses the posterior distribution to form various summaries for the model parameters including point estimates such as posterior means, medians, percentiles, and interval estimates such as credible intervals. Moreover, all statistical tests about model parameters can be expressed as probability statements based on the estimated posterior distribution.

Bayesian versus frequentist analysis, or why Bayesian analysis?

Why use Bayesian analysis? Perhaps a better question is when to use Bayesian analysis and when to use frequentist analysis. The answer to this question mainly lies in your research problem. You should choose an analysis that answers your specific research questions. For example, if you are interested in estimating the probability that the parameter of interest belongs to some pre-specified interval, you will need the Bayesian framework, because this probability cannot be estimated within the frequentist framework. If you are interested in a repeated-sampling inference about your parameter, the frequentist framework provides that.

Bayesian and frequentist approaches have very different philosophies about what is considered fixed and, therefore, have very different interpretations of the results. The Bayesian approach assumes that the observed data sample is fixed and that model parameters are random. The posterior distribution of parameters is estimated based on the observed data and the prior distribution of parameters and is used for inference.

The frequentist approach assumes that the observed data are a repeatable random sample and that parameters are unknown but fixed and constant across the repeated samples. The inference is based on the sampling distribution of the data or of the data characteristics (statistics). In other words, Bayesian analysis answers questions based on the distribution of parameters conditional on the observed sample, whereas frequentist analysis answers questions based on the distribution of statistics obtained from repeated hypothetical samples, which would be generated by the same process that produced the observed sample given that parameters are unknown but fixed.

Frequentist analysis consequently requires that the process that generated the observed data is repeatable. This assumption may not always be feasible. For example, in meta-analysis, where the observed sample represents the collected studies of interest, one may argue that the collection of studies is a one-time experiment. Frequentist analysis is entirely data-driven and strongly depends on whether or not the data assumptions required by the model are met. On the other hand, Bayesian analysis provides a more robust estimation approach by using not only the data at hand but also some existing information or knowledge about model parameters.

In frequentist statistics, estimators are used to approximate the true values of the unknown parameters, whereas Bayesian statistics provides an entire distribution of the parameters. In our example of a prevalence of an infectious disease from What is Bayesian analysis? [NOT SHOWN], frequentist analysis produced one point estimate for the prevalence, whereas Bayesian analysis estimated the entire posterior distribution of the prevalence based on a given sample.

Frequentist inference is based on the sampling distributions of estimators of parameters and provides parameter point estimates and their standard errors as well as confidence intervals. The exact sampling distributions are rarely known and are often approximated by a large-sample normal distribution.

Bayesian inference is based on the posterior distribution of the parameters and provides summaries of this distribution including posterior means and their MCMC standard errors (MCSE) as well as credible intervals. Although exact posterior distributions are known only in a number of cases, general posterior distributions can be estimated via, for example, Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) sampling without any large-sample approximation.

Frequentist confidence intervals do not have straightforward probabilistic interpretations as do Bayesian credible intervals. For example, the interpretation of a 95% confidence interval is that if we repeat the same experiment many times and compute confidence intervals for each experiment, then 95% of those intervals will contain the true value of the parameter. For any given confidence interval, the probability that the true value is in that interval is either zero or one, and we do not know which. We may only infer that any given confidence interval provides a plausible range for the true value of the parameter. A 95% Bayesian credible interval, on the other hand, provides a range for a parameter such that the probability that the parameter lies in that range is 95%.

Frequentist hypothesis testing is based on a deterministic decision using a prespecified significance level of whether to accept or reject the null hypothesis based on the observed data, assuming that the null hypothesis is actually true. The decision is based on a p-value computed from the observed data. The interpretation of the p-value is that if we repeat the same experiment and use the same testing procedure many times, then given our null hypothesis is true, we will observe the result (test statistic) as extreme or more extreme than the one observed in the sample (100 x p-value)% of the times. The p-value cannot be interpreted as a probability of the null hypothesis, which is a common misinterpretation. In fact, it answers the question of how likely are our data given that the null hypothesis is true, and not how likely is the null hypothesis given our data. The latter question can be answered by Bayesian hypothesis testing, where we can compute the probability of any hypothesis of interest.

How to do Bayesian analysis

Bayesian analysis starts with the specification of a posterior model. The posterior model describes the probability distribution of all model parameters conditional on the observed data and some prior knowledge. The posterior distribution has two components: a likelihood, which includes information about model parameters based on the observed data, and a prior, which includes prior information (before observing the data) about model parameters. The likelihood and prior models are combined using the Bayes rule to produce the posterior distribution: Posterior is proportional to Likelihood times Prior .

If the posterior distribution can be derived in a closed form, we may proceed directly to the inference stage of Bayesian analysis. Unfortunately, except for some special models, the posterior distribution is rarely available explicitly and needs to be estimated via simulations. MCMC sampling can be used to simulate potentially very complex posterior models with an arbitrary level of precision. MCMC methods for simulating Bayesian models are often demanding in terms of specifying an efficient sampling algorithm and verifying the convergence of the algorithm to the desired posterior distribution.

Inference is the next step of Bayesian analysis. If MCMC sampling is used for approximating the posterior distribution, the convergence of MCMC must be established before proceeding to inference. Point and interval estimators are either derived from the theoretical posterior distribution or estimated from a sample simulated from the posterior distribution. Many Bayesian estimators, such as posterior mean and posterior standard deviation, involve integration. If the integration cannot be performed analytically to obtain a closed-form solution, sampling techniques such as Monte Carlo integration and MCMC and numerical integration are commonly used.

Bayesian hypothesis testing can take two forms, which we refer to as interval-hypothesis testing and model-hypothesis testing. In an interval-hypothesis testing, the probability that a parameter or a set of parameters belongs to a particular interval or intervals is computed. In model hypothesis testing, the probability of a Bayesian model of interest given the observed data is computed.

Model comparison is another common step of Bayesian analysis. The Bayesian framework provides a systematic and consistent approach to model comparison using the notion of posterior odds and related to them Bayes factors.

Finally, prediction of some future unobserved data may also be of interest in Bayesian analysis. The prediction of a new data point is performed conditional on the observed data using the so-called posterior predictive distribution, which involves integrating out all parameters from the model with respect to their posterior distribution. Again, Monte Carlo integration is often the only feasible option for obtaining predictions. Prediction can also be helpful in estimating the goodness of fit of a model.


Advantages and disadvantages of Bayesian analysis

Bayesian analysis is a powerful analytical tool for statistical modeling, interpretation of results, and prediction of data. It can be used when there are no standard frequentist methods available or the existing frequentist methods fail. However, one should be aware of both the advantages and disadvantages of Bayesian analysis before applying it to a specific problem.

The universality of the Bayesian approach is probably its main methodological advantage to the traditional frequentist approach. Bayesian inference is based on a single rule of probability, the Bayes rule, which is applied to all parametric models. This makes the Bayesian approach universal and greatly facilitates its application and interpretation. The frequentist approach, however, relies on a variety of estimation methods designed for specific statistical problems and models. Often, inferential methods designed for one class of problems cannot be applied to another class of models.

In Bayesian analysis, we can use previous information, either belief or experimental evidence, in a data model to acquire more balanced results for a particular problem. For example, incorporating prior information can mitigate the effect of a small sample size. Importantly, the use of the prior evidence is achieved in a theoretically sound and principled way. By using the knowledge of the entire posterior distribution of model parameters, Bayesian inference is far more comprehensive and flexible than the traditional inference.

Bayesian inference is exact, in the sense that estimation and prediction are based on the posterior distribution. The latter is either known analytically or can be estimated numerically with an arbitrary precision. In contrast, many frequentist estimation procedures such as maximum likelihood rely on the assumption of asymptotic normality for inference.

Bayesian inference provides a straightforward and more intuitive interpretation of the results in terms of probabilities. For example, credible intervals are interpreted as intervals to which parameters belong with a certain probability, unlike the less straightforward repeated-sampling interpretation of the confidence intervals.

Bayesian models satisfy the likelihood principle that the information in a sample is fully represented by the likelihood function. This principle requires that if the likelihood function of one model is proportional to the likelihood function of another model, then inferences from the two models should give the same results. Some researchers argue that frequentist methods that depend on the experimental design may violate the likelihood principle.

Finally, as we briefly mentioned earlier, the estimation precision in Bayesian analysis is not limited by the sample size—Bayesian simulation methods may provide an arbitrary degree of precision. Despite the conceptual and methodological advantages of the Bayesian approach, its application in practice is still considered controversial sometimes. There are two main reasons for this—the presumed subjectivity in specifying prior information and the computational challenges in implementing Bayesian methods. Along with the objectivity that comes from the data, the Bayesian approach uses potentially subjective prior distribution. That is, different individuals may specify different prior distributions.

Proponents of frequentist statistics argue that for this reason, Bayesian methods lack objectivity and should be avoided. Indeed, there are settings such as clinical trial cases when the researchers want to minimize a potential bias coming from preexisting beliefs and achieve more objective conclusions.

Even in such cases, however, a balanced and reliable Bayesian approach is possible. The trend in using noninformative priors in Bayesian models is an attempt to address the issue of subjectivity. On the other hand, some Bayesian proponents argue that the classical methods of statistical inference have built-in subjectivity such as a choice for a sampling procedure, whereas the subjectivity is made explicit in Bayesian analysis.

Building a reliable Bayesian model requires extensive experience from the researchers, which leads to the second difficulty in Bayesian analysis—setting up a Bayesian model and performing analysis is a demanding and involving task. This is true, however, to an extent for any statistical modeling procedure.

Lastly, one of the main disadvantages of Bayesian analysis is the computational cost. As a rule, Bayesian analysis involves intractable integrals that can only be computed using intensive numerical methods. Most of these methods such as MCMC are stochastic by nature and do not comply with the natural expectation from a user of obtaining deterministic results. Using simulation methods does not compromise the discussed advantages of Bayesian approach, but unquestionably adds to the complexity of its application in practice.


Bayesian analysis is a statistical procedure that answers research questions by expressing uncertainty about unknown parameters using probabilities. Bayesian inference is based on the posterior distribution of model parameters conditional on the observed data. The posterior distribution is composed of a likelihood distribution of the data and the prior distribution of the model parameters. The likelihood model is specified in the same way it is specified with any standard likelihood-based analysis. The prior distribution is constructed based on the prior (before observing the data) scientific knowledge and results from previous studies. Sensitivity analysis is typically performed to evaluate the influence of different competing priors on the results.

Many posterior distributions do not have a closed form and must be simulated using MCMC methods such as MH methods or the Gibbs method or sometimes their combination. The convergence of MCMC must be verified before any inference can be made. Marginal posterior distributions of the parameters are used for inference. These are summarized using point estimators such as posterior mean and median and interval estimators such as equaltailed credible intervals and highest posterior density intervals. Credible intervals have an intuitive interpretation as fixed ranges to which a parameter is known to belong with a prespecified probability.

Hypothesis testing provides a way to assign an actual probability to any hypothesis of interest. A number of criteria are available for comparing models of interest. Predictions are also available based on the posterior predictive distribution. Bayesian analysis provides many advantages over the standard frequentist analysis, such as an ability to incorporate prior information in the analysis, higher robustness to sparse data, more-comprehensive inference based on the knowledge of the entire posterior distribution, and more intuitive and direct interpretations of results by using probability statements about parameters.

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