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Bayes' theorem

Bayes' theorem
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In probability theory and statistics, Bayes' theorem (alternatively Bayes' law or Bayes' rule) is a result that is of
importance in the mathematical manipulation of conditional probabilities. Bayes rule can be derived from more basic
axioms of probability, specifically conditional probability.
When applied, the probabilities involved in Bayes' theorem may have any of a number of probability interpretations.
In one of these interpretations, the theorem is used directly as part of a particular approach to statistical inference. ln
particular, with the Bayesian interpretation of probability, the theorem expresses how a subjective degree of belief
should rationally change to account for evidence: this is Bayesian inference, which is fundamental to Bayesian
statistics. However, Bayes' theorem has applications in a wide range of calculations involving probabilities, not just
in Bayesian inference.
Bayes' theorem is named after Thomas Bayes (/bez/; 17011761), who first suggested using the theorem to update
beliefs. His work was significantly edited and updated by Richard Price before it was posthumously read at the
Royal Society. The ideas gained limited exposure until they were independently rediscovered and further developed
by Laplace, who first published the modern formulation in his 1812 Thorie analytique des probabilits.
Sir Harold Jeffreys wrote that Bayes' theorem is to the theory of probability what Pythagoras's theorem is to
Introductory example
Suppose a man told you he had a nice conversation with someone on the train. Not knowing anything about this
conversation, the probability that he was speaking to a woman is 50% (assuming the speaker was as likely to strike
up a conversation with a man as with a woman). Now suppose he also told you that his conversational partner had
long hair. It is now more likely he was speaking to a woman, since women are more likely to have long hair than
men. Bayes' theorem can be used to calculate the probability that the person was a woman.
To see how this is done, let W represent the event that the conversation was held with a woman, and L denote the
event that the conversation was held with a long-haired person. It can be assumed that women constitute half the
population for this example. So, not knowing anything else, the probability that W occurs is P(W)=0.5.
Suppose it is also known that 75% of women have long hair, which we denote as P(L |W)=0.75 (read: the
probability of event L given event W is 0.75, meaning that the probability of a person having long hair (event "L"),
given that we already know that the person is a woman ("event W") is 75%). Likewise, suppose it is known that 15%
of men have long hair, or P(L |M)=0.15, where M is the complementary event of W, i.e., the event that the
conversation was held with a man (assuming that every human is either a man or a woman).
Our goal is to calculate the probability that the conversation was held with a woman, given the fact that the person
had long hair, or, in our notation, P(W |L). Using the formula for Bayes' theorem, we have:
where we have used the law of total probability to expand . The numeric answer can be obtained by
substituting the above values into this formula (the algebraic multiplication is annotated using " ", the centered dot).
This yields
Bayes' theorem
i.e., the probability that the conversation was held with a woman, given that the person had long hair, is about 83%.
More examples are provided below.
Another way to do this calculation is as follows. Initially, it is equally likely that the conversation is held with a
woman as with a man, so the prior odds are 1:1. The respective chances that a man and a woman have long hair are
15% and 75%. It is 5 times more likely that a woman has long hair than that a man has long hair. We say that the
likelihood ratio or Bayes factor is 5:1. Bayes' theorem in odds form, also known as Bayes' rule, tells us that the
posterior odds that the person was a woman is also 5:1 (the prior odds, 1:1, times the likelihood ratio, 5:1). In a
Statement and interpretation
Mathematically, Bayes' theorem gives the relationship between the probabilities of A and B, P(A) and P(B), and the
conditional probabilities of A given B and B given A, P(A|B) and P(B|A). In its most common form, it is:
The meaning of this statement depends on the interpretation of probability ascribed to the terms:
Bayesian interpretation
Main article: Bayesian probability
In the Bayesian (or epistemological) interpretation, probability measures a degree of belief. Bayes' theorem then
links the degree of belief in a proposition before and after accounting for evidence. For example, suppose somebody
proposes that a biased coin is twice as likely to land heads than tails. Degree of belief in this might initially be 50%.
The coin is then flipped a number of times to collect evidence. Belief may rise to 70% if the evidence supports the
For proposition A and evidence B,
P(A), the prior, is the initial degree of belief in A.
P(A|B), the posterior, is the degree of belief having accounted for B.
the quotient P(B|A)/P(B) represents the support B provides for A.
For more on the application of Bayes' theorem under the Bayesian interpretation of probability, see Bayesian
Bayes' theorem
Frequentist interpretation
Illustration of frequentist interpretation with tree
diagrams. Bayes' theorem connects conditional
probabilities to their inverses.
In the frequentist interpretation, probability measures a proportion of
outcomes. For example, suppose an experiment is performed many
times. P(A) is the proportion of outcomes with property A, and P(B)
that with property B. P(B|A) is the proportion of outcomes with
property B out of outcomes with property A, and P(A|B) the proportion
of those with A out of those with B.
The role of Bayes' theorem is best visualized with tree diagrams, as
shown to the right. The two diagrams partition the same outcomes by A
and B in opposite orders, to obtain the inverse probabilities. Bayes'
theorem serves as the link between these different partitionings.
Simple form
For events A and B, provided that P(B)0,
In many applications, for instance in Bayesian inference, the event B is
fixed in the discussion, and we wish to consider the impact of its having been observed on our belief in various
possible events A. In such a situation the denominator of the last expression, the probability of the given evidence B,
is fixed; what we want to vary is A. Bayes theorem then shows that the posterior probabilities are proportional to the
(proportionality over A for given B).
In words: posterior is proportional to prior times likelihood (see Lee, 2012, Chapter 1).
If events A
, A
, , are mutually exclusive and exhaustive, i.e., one of them is certain to occur but no two can occur
together, and we know their probabilities up to proportionality, then we can determine the proportionality constant
by using the fact that their probabilities must add up to one. For instance, for a given event A, the event A itself and
its complement A are exclusive and exhaustive. Denoting the constant of proportionality by c we have
Adding these two formulas we deduce that
Bayes' theorem
Extended form
Often, for some partition {A
} of the event space, the event space is given or conceptualized in terms of P(A
) and
). It is then useful to compute P(B) using the law of total probability:
In the special case where A is a binary variable:
Random variables
Diagram illustrating the meaning of Bayes'
theorem as applied to an event space generated by
continuous random variables X and Y. Note that
there exists an instance of Bayes' theorem for
each point in the domain. In practice, these
instances might be parametrized by writing the
specified probability densities as a function of x
and y.
Consider a sample space generated by two random variables X and
Y. In principle, Bayes' theorem applies to the events A={X=x} and
B={Y=y}. However, terms become 0 at points where either variable
has finite probability density. To remain useful, Bayes' theorem may be
formulated in terms of the relevant densities (see Derivation).
Simple form
If X is continuous and Y is discrete,
If X is discrete and Y is continuous,
If both X and Y are continuous,
Extended form
Diagram illustrating how an event space
generated by continuous random variables X and
Y is often conceptualized.
A continuous event space is often conceptualized in terms of the
numerator terms. It is then useful to eliminate the denominator using
the law of total probability. For f
(y), this becomes an integral:
Bayes' theorem
Bayes' rule
Main article: Bayes' rule
Bayes' rule is Bayes' theorem in odds form.
is called the Bayes factor or likelihood ratio and the odds between two events is simply the ratio of the probabilities
of the two events. Thus
So the rule says that the posterior odds are the prior odds times the Bayes factor, or in other words, posterior is
proportional to prior times likelihood.
For events
Bayes' theorem may be derived from the definition of conditional probability:
For random variables
For two continuous random variables X and Y, Bayes' theorem may be analogously derived from the definition of
conditional density:
Bayes' theorem
Frequentist example
Tree diagram illustrating frequentist example. R,
C, P and P bar are the events representing rare,
common, pattern and no pattern. Percentages in
parentheses are calculated. Note that three
independent values are given, so it is possible to
calculate the inverse tree (see figure above).
An entomologist spots what might be a rare subspecies of beetle, due
to the pattern on its back. In the rare subspecies, 98% have the pattern,
or P(Pattern|Rare) = 98%. In the common subspecies, 5% have the
pattern. The rare subspecies accounts for only 0.1% of the population.
How likely is the beetle having the pattern to be rare, or what is
From the extended form of Bayes' theorem (since any beetle can be only rare or common),
Coin flip example
Concrete example from 5 August 2011 New York Times article
by John Allen Paulos (quoted verbatim):
"Assume that youre presented with three coins, two of them fair and the other a counterfeit that always lands heads.
If you randomly pick one of the three coins, the probability that its the counterfeit is 1 in 3. This is the prior
probability of the hypothesis that the coin is counterfeit. Now after picking the coin, you flip it three times and
observe that it lands heads each time. Seeing this new evidence that your chosen coin has landed heads three times in
a row, you want to know the revised posterior probability that it is the counterfeit. The answer to this question, found
using Bayess theorem (calculation mercifully omitted), is 4 in 5. You thus revise your probability estimate of the
coins being counterfeit upward from 1 in 3 to 4 in 5."
The calculation ("mercifully supplied") follows:
Bayes' theorem
Drug testing
Tree diagram illustrating drug testing example. U,
U bar, "+" and "" are the events representing
user, non-user, positive result and negative result.
Percentages in parentheses are calculated.
Suppose a drug test is 99% sensitive and 99% specific. That is, the test
will produce 99% true positive results for drug users and 99% true
negative results for non-drug users. Suppose that 0.5% of people are
users of the drug. If a randomly selected individual tests positive, what
is the probability he or she is a user?
Despite the apparent accuracy of the test, if an individual tests positive, it is more likely that they do not use the drug
than that they do.
This surprising result arises because the number of non-users is very large compared to the number of users; thus the
number of false positives (0.995%) outweighs the number of true positives (0.495%). To use concrete numbers, if
1000 individuals are tested, there are expected to be 995 non-users and 5 users. From the 995 non-users,
0.0199510 false positives are expected. From the 5 users, 0.9955 true positives are expected. Out of 15
positive results, only 5, about 33%, are genuine.
Note: The importance of specificity can be illustrated by showing that even if sensitivity is 100% and specificity is at
99% the probability of the person being a drug user is ~33% but if the specificity is changed to 99.5% and the
Bayes' theorem
sensitivity is dropped down to 99% the probability of the person being a drug user raises to 49.8%. Even at 90%
sensitivity and 99.5% specificity the probability of a person being a drug user is 47.5%.
Bayes' Theorem is significantly important in inverse problem theory, where the a posteriori probability density
function is obtained from the product of prior probability density function and the likelihood probability density
function. An important application is constructing computational models of oil reservoirs given the observed data.
Although Bayes' theorem is commonly used to determine the probability of an event occurring, it can also be applied
to verify someones credibility as a prognosticator. Many pundits claim to be able to predict the outcome of an event;
political elections, trials, the weather and even sporting events. Larry Sabato, founder of Sabatos Crystal Ball, is a
perfect example. His website provides free political analysis and election predictions. His success at predictions has
even led him to be called a pundit with an opinion for every reporters phone call. We even have Punxsutawney
Phil, the famous groundhog, who tells us whether or not we can expect a longer winter or an early spring. Bayes
theorem tells us the difference between whos on a hot streak and who is what they claim to be.
Lets say we live in an area where everyone gambles on the outcome of coin flips. Because of that, there is a big
business for predicting coin flips. Suppose that 5% of predictors can actually win in the long run, and 80% of those
are winners over a 2-year period. 95% of predictors are pretenders who are just guessing, and 20% of them are
winners over a 2-year period (everyone gets lucky once in a while). This means that 82.6% of bettors who are
winners over a 2-year period are actually long-term losers who are winning above their real average.
Bayes' theorem was named after the Reverend Thomas Bayes (170161), who studied how to compute a distribution
for the probability parameter of a binomial distribution (in modern terminology). His friend Richard Price edited and
presented this work in 1763, after Bayes' death, as An Essay towards solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances.
The French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace reproduced and extended Bayes' results in 1774, apparently quite
unaware of Bayes' work.
Stephen Stigler suggested in 1983 that Bayes' theorem was discovered by Nicholas
Saunderson some time before Bayes.
However, this interpretation has been disputed.
Martyn Hooper
and Sharon McGrayne have argued that Richard Price's contribution was substantial.
"By modern standards, we should refer to the Bayes-Price rule. Price discovered Bayes's work, recognized its
importance, corrected it, contributed to the article, and found a use for it. The modern convention of
employing Bayes' name alone is unfair but so entrenched that anything else makes little sense."
[1] http:/ / en. wikipedia. org/ w/ index. php?title=Template:Bayesian_statistics& action=edit
[2] http:/ / www. nytimes. com/ 2011/ 08/ 07/ books/ review/ the-theory-that-would-not-die-by-sharon-bertsch-mcgrayne-book-review. html
[3] Gharib Shirangi, M., History matching production data and uncertainty assessment with an efficient TSVD parameterization algorithm,
Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering, http:/ / www. sciencedirect. com/ science/ article/ pii/ S0920410513003227
[4] [4] Laplace refined Bayes' theorem over a period of decades:
Laplace announced his independent discovery of Bayes' theorem in: Laplace (1774) "Mmoire sur la probabilit des causes par les
vnements," Mmoires de l'Acadmie royale des Sciences de Paris (Savants trangers), 4 : 621--656. Reprinted in: Laplace, Oeuvres
compltes (Paris, France: Gauthier-Villars et fils, 1841), vol. 8, pp. 27-65. Available on-line at: Gallica (http:/ / gallica. bnf. fr/ ark:/ 12148/
bpt6k77596b/ f32. image). Bayes' theorem appears on p. 29.
Laplace presented a refinement of Bayes' theorem in: Laplace (read: 1783 / published: 1785) "Mmoire sur les approximations des
formules qui sont fonctions de trs grands nombres," Mmoires de l'Acadmie royale des Sciences de Paris, 423-467. Reprinted in:
Laplace, Oeuvres compltes (Paris, France: Gauthier-Villars et fils, 1844), vol. 10, pp. 295-338. Available on-line at: Gallica (http:/ /
gallica. bnf. fr/ ark:/ 12148/ bpt6k775981/ f218. image. langEN). Bayes' theorem is stated on page 301.
See also: Laplace, Essai philosophique sur les probabilits (Paris, France: Mme. Ve. Courcier [Madame veuve (i.e., widow) Courcier],
1814), page 10 (http:/ / books?id=rDUJAAAAIAAJ& pg=PA10#v=onepage& q& f=false). English translation: Pierre
Bayes' theorem
Simon, Marquis de Laplace with F. W. Truscott and F. L. Emory, trans., A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (New York, New York:
John Wiley & Sons, 1902), page 15 (http:/ / books?id=WxoPAAAAIAAJ& pg=PA15#v=onepage& q& f=false).
[5] Stigler, Stephen M. (1983), "Who Discovered Bayes' Theorem?", The American Statistician 37(4):290296.
[6] Edwards, A. W. F. (1986), "Is the Reference in Hartley (1749) to Bayesian Inference?", The American Statistician 40(2):109110
[7] Hooper, Martyn. (2013), "Richard Price, Bayes' theorem, and God", Significance 10(1):36-39.
Further reading
McGrayne, Sharon Bertsch (2011). The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code,
Hunted Down Russian Submarines & Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy. Yale University
Press. ISBN978-0-300-18822-6.
Andrew Gelman, John B. Carlin, Hal S. Stern, and Donald B. Rubin (2003), "Bayesian Data Analysis", Second
Edition, CRC Press.
Charles M. Grinstead and J. Laurie Snell (1997), "Introduction to Probability (2nd edition)", American
Mathematical Society (free pdf available (http:/ / www. dartmouth. edu/ ~chance/ teaching_aids/ books_articles/
probability_book/ book. html).
Pierre-Simon Laplace. (1774/1986), "Memoir on the Probability of the Causes of Events", Statistical Science
Peter M. Lee (2012), "Bayesian Statistics: An Introduction", Wiley.
Rosenthal, Jeffrey S. (2005): "Struck by Lightning: the Curious World of Probabilities". Harper Collings.
Stephen M. Stigler (1986), "Laplace's 1774 Memoir on Inverse Probability", Statistical Science 1(3):359363.
Hazewinkel, Michiel, ed. (2001), "Bayes formula" (http:/ / www. encyclopediaofmath. org/ index. php?title=p/
b015380), Encyclopedia of Mathematics, Springer, ISBN978-1-55608-010-4
Stone, JV (2013). Chapter 1 of book "Bayes Rule: A Tutorial Introduction" (http:/ / jim-stone. staff. shef.
BookBayes2012/ BayesRuleBookMain. html), University of Sheffield, Psychology.
External links
The Theory That Would Not Die by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne (http:/ / www. nytimes. com/ 2011/ 08/ 07/ books/
review/ the-theory-that-would-not-die-by-sharon-bertsch-mcgrayne-book-review. html) New York Times Book
Review by John Allen Paulos on 5 August 2011
Visual explanation of Bayes using trees (https:/ / www. youtube. com/ watch?v=Zxm4Xxvzohk) (video)
Bayes' frequentist interpretation explained visually (http:/ / www. youtube. com/ watch?v=D8VZqxcu0I0) (video)
Earliest Known Uses of Some of the Words of Mathematics (B) (http:/ / jeff560. tripod. com/ b. html). Contains
origins of "Bayesian", "Bayes' Theorem", "Bayes Estimate/Risk/Solution", "Empirical Bayes", and "Bayes
Weisstein, Eric W., "Bayes' Theorem" (http:/ / mathworld. wolfram. com/ BayesTheorem. html), MathWorld.
Bayes' theorem (http:/ / planetmath. org/ encyclopedia/ BayesTheorem. html) at PlanetMath
Bayes Theorem and the Folly of Prediction (http:/ / rldinvestments. com/ Articles/ BayesTheorem. html)
A tutorial on probability and Bayes theorem devised for Oxford University psychology students (http:/ / www.
celiagreen. com/ charlesmccreery/ statistics/ bayestutorial. pdf)
An Intuitive Explanation of Bayes' Theorem by Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (http:/ / yudkowsky. net/ rational/ bayes)
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