Book Review: The Theory That Would Not Die

The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes’ Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne

If you have a passing familiarity with statistics, you’ve probably come across the centuries old debate between frequentists and Bayesians. Most users of statistics and probability today are probably all too happy to avoid the debate and “just use what works” (though, that doesn’t prevent science from being really hard). The striking thing I learned from the book is just how heated and vicious the debate has gotten in the past (and present), so it’s no wonder that even if there is an Objectively True Outcome people would want to avoid the debate just to be able to get some work down.

I won’t give a lengthy synopsis of the book since Luke Muehlhauser already did a very thorough job some time ago. One of the big takeaways is that in a fairer world it would be called Laplacian statistics with Thomas Bayes credited with having an early inkling. One thing that McGrayne says is that English-speaking scientists grew up not knowing about Laplace and hence the preference for the English Bayes. At least in my experience if this is true it’s pretty outdated, since engineers and physicists (at the very least) learn about the Laplacian, Laplace’s equation, and the Laplace transform.

Two things I wanted from the book but didn’t get were the origin story and effects of Cox’s theorem and how ET Jaynes fits into modern Bayesian thinker, particular in regards to his acclaimed posthumous book Probability Theory: The Logic of Science. There’s no mention of Cox’s and there are only two mentions of Jaynes as basically a voice in the wilderness.

However, that was just my wishlist. My main complaint is that neophyte readers won’t come away with a deep understanding of what actually was being debated. I understand that it’s hard to explain statistical techniques without becoming a math-ridden textbook, but to a great extent many of the points of contention just sound like arcana if you don’t have prior experience with statistics. If you’re somewhat interested in statistics and want to know what all the controversy is about, I’m not sure that this book will clear things up for you. It’s mostly just historical anecdote light reading.


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