Magazine article Science News

Scientific Guesstimation Relies on Bayesian Brains

Magazine article Science News

Scientific Guesstimation Relies on Bayesian Brains

Article excerpt

Science and guesswork evolve hand in hand, along with the human brain itself. Think about it. Brains evolved to make successful guesses about the best survival strategies, helping their bodies live longer and reproduce more successfully than they otherwise might. At the same time brains also evolved the ability to engage in scientific investigation about things pretty far removed from the perils of the savanna.

Turns out, though, that there is a connection between these seemingly discordant abilities. Brace yourself: It has something to do with Bayesian statistics.

In Bayesian statistical analysis, a "prior" probability (an estimate made before data are collected) is factored into calculations of the likelihood that a hypothesis is correct. Bayesian math annoys some traditionalists who cling to good old frequentist statistics, and the proper use of statistics in science is certainly an enormously complicated issue (SN: 3/27/10, p. 26). Bayesian math also poses computational challenges; in complex cases it can be more perplexing than calculating an NFL quarterback's efficiency rating.

Nevertheless, neuroscience research suggests that brains are naturally Bayesian: They operate on the basis of past experience but update previous beliefs as new evidence warrants doing so. …

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