Update Your Priors!

Thomas Bayes

Start with a flat-out guess about something. Imagine the probability of your guess being right on. What are the chances? Or perhaps your guess is a little off. Which is it? Why? Return to the question. Add information. Watch closely. Observe objectively. Gather evidence. Then modify your original assumption based on what you just learned to create a new and improved model of your original guess, or at least a better-understood, more refined version. Easy-peasy, right?

This method was developed by Thomas Bayes, a brilliant English mathematician and theologian (1702 -1761). The “Bayesian inference” is an inspired model of thinking—of being “rational.” How radical!

The Thinker by Rodin

“Bayesian thinking” can be applied to whatever subject or topic you want—engineering, philosophy, sports, walking the dog, or life in general. You begin with a question or assumption and then basically add more information to your starting point. Your first thoughts are formed with what you already know—your “prior” information, your basic concept, your preconceived thoughts. Then as you add more information, you rationally “update” what you know. As you gather more and more facts, you can’t un-know them. So, you’re wise to keep adding information, despite the fact that your original assumptions may no longer be valid. Your basic data-base expands, your knowledge-base grows and you get  more objective, more effective and much more rational!

Bayesian Pop Culture

Today’s popular following of the “Bayesian model,” has simplified the whole idea, as you might expect. That simplification has resulted in a 3-word slogan, which of course, can be easily printed on T-shirts—”UPDATE YOUR PRIORS!” That concise phrase is meant to encourage everyone to constantly evaluate their knowledge (their personal data-base), fold in current observations, and with those adaptations, create a new and expanded baseline of information—an ever-expanding view of the world!

The little Thinker

So why are we talking about this today? Well, quite frankly, Bayes’ idea, stripped down to the bare essentials, has actually become a critical part of living life in the 21st century. In fact, our 4-year-old granddaughter already has her version of the theory down pat. She isn’t unique,—just observe any young person you know. Every day she’s making new observations and assumptions about life, language, feelings etc. and immediately putting them into practice. She doesn’t labor over the new details that are challenging what she thought she knew—she just casually takes each new understanding out for a test-drive. Then, she observes and modifies accordingly. Simple, right? She repeats this process over and over from dawn to dusk. Her ability to learn and adapt occurs at lightning speed, leaving many of us in the proverbial dust of our own habitual thinking.

We, on the other hand, have a tendency to function in a very un-“Bayesian” way. Start with a preconceived notion, then work like hell to make everything conform to that way of thinking. If, by chance, we encounter ideas that just don’t match, we try to figure out how we can manipulate others’ thinking to prove our point. The kicker though, is that many other people are doing exactly the same thing at the same time. Hence, we have a world full of competing agendas, anger, waste, wars, death and destruction, to name just a few nasty by-products of inflexible, non-updated thinking.

Albert Einstein

Perhaps we have simply failed to UPDATE OUR PRIORS! Albert Einstein took this idea to an extreme when he said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Basically he’s saying that closing our minds to rational observations can only lead to a “Ground Hog Day” of the same assumptions and results. Life is far more dynamic than that. Very few things stay the same. So, okay, okay. We’ll UPDATE OUR PRIORS, already.

Seriously, Thomas Bayes had an important idea that raises many critical questions about life. In order to be “rational” we will “UoP.” Creating that simple habit can have profound positive cultural, national, global and personal implications. For us, we’re starting with the world of information where we have some personal interest and control—the world within.

Credits

The featured image at the top of this story was courtesy of Dr. Trevor Bazett
All other images are part of the internet public commons or purchased from Canva

Related Story

We wrote another story several years ago called “Free Advice” that you might want to check-out. It deals with the topics of “social-correctness,” “spontaneity” and “truth.”

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