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Popper as a particular case to Bayesian probability theoryΒΆ

This is a copy from the website http://yudkowsky.net/rational/bayes. I wanted to have my own copy in case the website shuts down in the future. This part discusses why Popper’s falsification approach can be seen as a particular case of Bayesian’s approach.


The Bayesian revolution in the sciences is fueled, not only by more and more cognitive scientists suddenly noticing that mental phenomena have Bayesian structure in them; not only by scientists in every field learning to judge their statistical methods by comparison with the Bayesian method; but also by the idea that science itself is a special case of Bayes’ Theorem; experimental evidence is Bayesian evidence. The Bayesian revolutionaries hold that when you perform an experiment and get evidence that “confirms” or “disconfirms” your theory, this confirmation and disconfirmation is governed by the Bayesian rules. For example, you have to take into account, not only whether your theory predicts the phenomenon, but whether other possible explanations also predict the phenomenon. Previously, the most popular philosophy of science was probably Karl Popper’s falsificationism - this is the old philosophy that the Bayesian revolution is currently dethroning. Karl Popper’s idea that theories can be definitely falsified, but never definitely confirmed, is yet another special case of the Bayesian rules; if p(X|A) ~ 1 - if the theory makes a definite prediction - then observing ~X very strongly falsifies A. On the other hand, if p(X|A) ~ 1, and we observe X, this doesn’t definitely confirm the theory; there might be some other condition B such that p(X|B) ~ 1, in which case observing X doesn’t favor A over B. For observing X to definitely confirm A, we would have to know, not that p(X|A) ~ 1, but that p(X|~A) ~ 0, which is something that we can’t know because we can’t range over all possible alternative explanations. For example, when Einstein’s theory of General Relativity toppled Newton’s incredibly well-confirmed theory of gravity, it turned out that all of Newton’s predictions were just a special case of Einstein’s predictions.

You can even formalize Popper’s philosophy mathematically. The likelihood ratio for X, p(X|A)/p(X|~A), determines how much observing X slides the probability for A; the likelihood ratio is what says how strong X is as evidence. Well, in your theory A, you can predict X with probability 1, if you like; but you can’t control the denominator of the likelihood ratio, p(X|~A) - there will always be some alternative theories that also predict X, and while we go with the simplest theory that fits the current evidence, you may someday encounter some evidence that an alternative theory predicts but your theory does not. That’s the hidden gotcha that toppled Newton’s theory of gravity. So there’s a limit on how much mileage you can get from successful predictions; there’s a limit on how high the likelihood ratio goes for confirmatory evidence.

On the other hand, if you encounter some piece of evidence Y that is definitely not predicted by your theory, this is enormously strong evidence against your theory. If p(Y|A) is infinitesimal, then the likelihood ratio will also be infinitesimal. For example, if p(Y|A) is 0.0001%, and p(Y|~A) is 1%, then the likelihood ratio p(Y|A)/p(Y|~A) will be 1:10000. -40 decibels of evidence! Or flipping the likelihood ratio, if p(Y|A) is very small, then p(Y|~A)/p(Y|A) will be very large, meaning that observing Y greatly favors ~A over A. Falsification is much stronger than confirmation. This is a consequence of the earlier point that very strong evidence is not the product of a very high probability that A leads to X, but the product of a very low probability that not-A could have led to X. This is the precise Bayesian rule that underlies the heuristic value of Popper’s falsificationism.

Similarly, Popper’s dictum that an idea must be falsifiable can be interpreted as a manifestation of the Bayesian conservation-of-probability rule; if a result X is positive evidence for the theory, then the result ~X would have disconfirmed the theory to some extent. If you try to interpret both X and ~X as “confirming” the theory, the Bayesian rules say this is impossible! To increase the probability of a theory you must expose it to tests that can potentially decrease its probability; this is not just a rule for detecting would-be cheaters in the social process of science, but a consequence of Bayesian probability theory. On the other hand, Popper’s idea that there is only falsification and no such thing as confirmation turns out to be incorrect. Bayes’ Theorem shows that falsification is very strong evidence compared to confirmation, but falsification is still probabilistic in nature; it is not governed by fundamentally different rules from confirmation, as Popper argued.

So we find that many phenomena in the cognitive sciences, plus the statistical methods used by scientists, plus the scientific method itself, are all turning out to be special cases of Bayes’ Theorem. Hence the Bayesian revolution.