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How things sound to us, versus how they sound to others

Hykel Hosni noticed this bit from the Lindley Prize page of the Society for Bayesan Analysis:

Lindley became a great missionary for the Bayesian gospel. The atmosphere of the Bayesian revival is captured in a comment by Rivett on Lindley’s move to University College London and the premier chair of statistics in Britain: “it was as though a Jehovah’s Witness had been elected Pope.”

From my perspective, this was amusing (if commonplace): a group of rationalists jocularly characterizing themselves as religious fanatics. And some of this is in response to intense opposition from outsiders (see the Background section here).

That’s my view. I’m an insider, a statistician who’s heard all jokes about religious Bayesians, from Bayesian and non-Bayesian statisticians alike.

But Hosni is an outsider, and here’s how he sees the above-quoted paragraph:

Research, however, is not a matter of faith but a matter of arguments, which should always be evaluated with the utmost intellectual honesty. . . . what academics constantly owe to society, is the moral obligation of refraining from dishonest nonsense, of which the above quoted passage is a despicable example.

I’m fascinated to see that an old joke can be so completely misperceived from the outside. Scary, really. (Hosni did not simply say that the quote was in poor taste, or that it could be misinterpreted, or that it was a distraction. He actually called it “despicable.” Of course, he could be himself joking by writing that. It’s notoriously difficult to convey intonation in typed speech.)

P.S. I’d like to stay on Hosni’s good side, given that he wrote a very nice summary of my recent Rationality, Markets and Morals article on induction and deduction in Bayesian data analysis. Hosni seems completely up to date on Bayesian philosophy, not so much on statistics in-jokes. I much prefer that to the reverse!

2 Comments

  1. FH says:

    Reminds me of the “misinterpretation” of “trick” and “hide” during the whole Climategate business.

    From the wikipedia page about Climategate.

    The final analyses from various subsequent inquiries concluded that in this context ‘trick’ was normal scientific or mathematical jargon for a neat way of handling data, in this case a statistical method used to bring two or more different kinds of data sets together in a legitimate fashion.

  2. Chuck says:

    My reaction was is the opposite—I think that there truly was an emotional commitment to views of probability that is not quite rational. I recall clearly when I was a graduate student and a professor (who later asked a tricky question about the Pareto distribution at my qualifying orals) stated quite strongly, almost religiously, that “probability was long-run frequency.” Even then I was receptive to the betting-odds definition frm Bayesian decision theory but I kept my mouth shut because I felt that the definition of probability was not an issue for rational discussion. (Not offending him may have paid off, a decade later he called me one day and offered me a visiting professorship which, alas, I had to turn down.) Now, in his defense, I should note that he was not a decision-theory type, rather he was more a quantum physics (he said things like “h-nu”, not “choice”).

    As for “hide-the-decline”, sure whatever. Moreover, I understand that Dan Rather still believes that the Texas Air National Guide had a typewriter that did kerning in the 1970s.