The Odds, Continually Updated

F. D. Flam in the New York Times:

30BAYES-master675Statistics may not sound like the most heroic of pursuits. But if not for statisticians, a Long Island fisherman might have died in the Atlantic Ocean after falling off his boat early one morning last summer.

The man owes his life to a once obscure field known as Bayesian statistics — a set of mathematical rules for using new data to continuously update beliefs or existing knowledge.

The method was invented in the 18th century by an English Presbyterian minister named Thomas Bayes — by some accounts to calculate the probability of God’s existence. In this century, Bayesian statistics has grown vastly more useful because of the kind of advanced computing power that didn’t exist even 20 years ago.

It is proving especially useful in approaching complex problems, including searches like the one the Coast Guard used in 2013 to find themissing fisherman, John Aldridge (though not, so far, in the hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370).

Now Bayesian statistics are rippling through everything from physics tocancer research, ecology to psychology.

More here.