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On the Term "Religion"

January 5, 2010

Uninformed critics of Austrian economics sometimes dismiss it as “religion, not analysis.” Perhaps they should heed statistician Andrew Gelman’s advice “to retire use of the term ‘religion’ to mean ‘uncritical belief in something I disagree with.’” Right on! I mean, how often have you been chided for your “belief” in “free-market fundamentalism”? Gag. (Although I guess I’m guilty of treating Keynesians in the same manner.) Anyway, Gelman notes that in statistics, Bayesian methods are often dismissed this way. Some funny examples:

[W]hen I started doing statistics, people often referred to Bayesianism as a religion. . . . One of my Berkeley colleagues who studied probability — really, a brilliant guy — commented once that “of course” he was a Bayesian, but he was puzzled by how Bayesian inference worked in an example he’d seen. My feeling was: Bayes is a method, not a religion! Can’t we evaluate it based on how it works?

And, a few years ago, someone from the computer science department came over and gave a lecture in the stat dept at Columbia. His talk was fascinating, but he irritated me by saying how his method gave all the benefits of Bayesian inference “without having to believe in it.” I don’t believe in logistic regression either, but it sure is useful!

I’ve had similar experiences. Thank goodness for that twelve-step program!

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