Finding Science in Speculation with Bayes’ Theorem

Image: "Bayes' Theorem MMB 01" by mattbuck (category) - Own work by mattbuck. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Image: “Bayes’ Theorem MMB 01” by mattbuck (category) – Own work by mattbuck. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re not mathematically inclined, one look at Bayes’ Theorem — a parade of parenthetical A’s and B’s stacked on top of each other — can be a bit intimidating.

However, the theorem can be traced to many different parts of our everyday lives. First conceived around the time that Ben Franklin experimented with his infamous kite and key, it now helps us predict things like the weather, election results, health trends, even locating missing people and things.

Sydney Beveridge’s PRX STEM Story Project guides us through different ways the theorem is used, framing it with how it might be used to help someone find their missing keys.

When asked how she chose the topic, producer Sydney Beveridge responds, “This story was an opportunity to dig into the magic and manipulation behind the numbers that we encounter in our daily lives.” Outside of radio, she works with data at the demographic research and visualization website Social Explorer, which focuses on numbers to communicate trends and ideas. Also, she admits, she lost her keys last year.

“Even though numbers feel so concrete, the way we work with them varies and can be heavily disputed,” Beveridge reminds us. While researching the story, she was surprised to learn that the field of statistics is fraught with controversy; it even has warring factions within the field. No huge surprise there, especially with books like How to Lie With Statistics juxtaposing statistics and dishonesty, and general skepticism around exit polling during elections.

However, Beveridge hopes that listeners come away from the piece better understanding the difference between Bayesian statistics and classical statistics. “In some ways, the theorem is a common sense idea…but it is also conceptually rich in its handling of subjectivity, contradictory possibilities and iteration.”

That said, if you end up listening to the piece, the odds might just fall in your favor.

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