How literature, apparently, has got it all wrong…

Catching up on my old, unread editions of the Times Literary Supplement, I come across a long and curious article by Gregory Currie, Professor of Psychology at Nottingham University, on the subject of characters in fiction, and the latest results of psychological tests. I know I should provide a link to this, but since this article is available online only to subscribers of the TLS, there seems little point. (Any reader who is a subscriber can easily find it on the TLS website: it’s in Issue 5657, dated September 2nd 2011.)

Since I can’t provide a link, I suppose I should provide some sort of summary of it, but that is not easily done: it’s a long article, with many qualifications and nuances. And, to be honest, I am not sure I have understood it properly. I have read it over a few times to make sure that Professor Currie really is saying what he appears to be saying. But if he is, then, professor or no professor, what he is saying, or seems to me to be saying, is utter nonsense.

At the risk of simplifying his arguments, let me attempt to summarise it – or, at least, let me summarise my understanding of it:

Research in psychology laboratories indicates that the concept of an underlying human character that determines to a great extent how people think and behave is weak; and that the thought and behaviour of humans is far more likely to be influenced by the stimulus of the moment. Since fiction – i.e. novels, short stories, plays – focus primarily on character rather than on the stimulus of the moment, the understanding fiction provides of human behaviour is unrealistic and spurious. Therefore, fiction should be enjoyed merely as a self-referential entity. We must not allow that fiction has any connection with the reality that lies outside it.

I appreciate that Gregory Currie is a professor of psychology, and I appreciate also that I am quite ignorant of the subject, by my response on first reading Prof Currie’s article, and my response still after the umpteenth reading, is a somewhat inarticulate “Eh?” Of course one recognises the importance of immediate stimuli: when I am tired and hungry, I tend to become irritable; when I am warm and comfortable, I tend to feel contented; and so on. Show me any novelist who is not already aware of this. Indeed, show me anyone with half a brain who is not already aware of this.  But this overrides underlying human character and personality? Really? If we receive an unexpectedly large bill, I tend to panic and become flustered; my wife, affected by the same stimulus, remains calm and collected, and sorts matters out. If our underlying characters aren’t as important as the stimuli of the moment, then why is it that we react so differently to the same stimulus?

Maybe I have misunderstood what the good professor is saying, but I have read the article over a few times, and I really can’t see that my summary above, albeit simplified, is an inaccurate reflection of the article. (I’d welcome any correction on that point.) And what particularly concerns me is the conclusion of the article: literature, Prof. Currie concludes, must not be regarded as something that relates to real life; it is but an enjoyable and sometimes intellectually stimulating game, but it has no more connection to reality than has a crossword puzzle.

If this is all literature is, then it is worthless. Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Joyce – you could discard the whole damn lot, and, other than losing a means of whiling away a few idle hours, we would not be any poorer for it. As if it weren’t bad enough that various strands of postmodernist thought, with its insistence that words cannot depict reality, or even that there is no objective reality to depict, have already reduced literature to a mere parlour game! Now psychology is getting in on the act by claiming that something that is and always has been bleeding obvious (that we react to stimuli of the moment) is a new discovery, and that it invalidates any claim of literature of depicting the real world.

Literature is not easily capable of abstraction: if it cannot depict reality – either through what we call “realism”, or through some other stylised means of depiction – then it is nothing. And I find it sad to see so many academics, so many literary academics at that, so busy sawing away with glee at the very branch on which they are sitting.

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33 responses to this post.

  1. I came nack to see what had been written – how odd – the message came through as a pale grey thingy with not a word to be seen What is the matter Himadri – I’ll take a copy any way – home you get it fixed

    Reply

  2. Been there – read that – and he is a Professor of Psychology – I see, and you have, to my mind, been quite accurate with your summary, but, that being said – I find it rather difficult to believe a word of what the dear Prof has said – I know nothing of course – only studied Psychology at College and passed alright, but now at University I am on Greek and Latin – I have but one message to the Proffessor of Psychology please – “Physician – do Heal Thyself”

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  3. I can’t agree at all with the assertion that “the understanding fiction provides of human behaviour is unrealistic and spurious. Therefore, fiction should be enjoyed merely as a self-referential entity.”

    Last year I was involved by association in the squabble over an old man’s will. The behaviour that spewed forth from those involved was something to see. Finally, the only way I could come to terms with it was to realise that I was watching something out of a Balzac novel.

    “Lawyers see worse things than writers can invent. I’ve seen wills burned, mothers despoil their lawful children on behalf of those bred in adultery, wives use their husbands’ love to murder them or drive them mad so as to live with their lovers. I’ve seen ugly quarrels over still-warm corpses. I have seen crimes, Sir, that human justice is powerless to punish. Our offices are sewers that no one can clean.” (Derville to Chabert)

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  4. How very strange, sounds just like my family – step-family rather – my step father left me (his sole carer) all his accquired assets, or were they accrued – I don’t rightly know – but this I certainly know – no one of his family now speaks to me,
    Where there’s a will there’s a way – or rather – where there’s a Will there’s a relative !!
    C’est la Vie n’est ‘pas ??

    Reply

  5. Academics are under a lot of pressure to publish. This explains a lot of rot that one reads these days, I think. Not to mention the fact that many of them are out of touch with reality.

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  6. Hear Hear, Lichanos: The Sound and the Fury… signifying nothing.

    Reply

  7. Posted by alan on September 26, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    These are just my opinions : based on experience.
    Most people are storytellers. I see your behaviour and I create a story. Whether that story I tell about you is ‘true’ or ‘real’ I don’t know. What I do know is that I can’t keep in my head all your separate bits of behaviour. Instead, I have to simplify, and create a story about you. Anything else is impossible for a limited being like me.
    Those of us who find it difficult to tell stories about people are usually described, according to my understanding, as autistic. I would argue that reading literature helps autistic people arrive at a way of modeling other minds that helps them cope with living in a society – and where else can we live ?
    Now, it may be that the autistic outlook is a more accurate one, but it makes for a very difficult social life. So my answer to the professor is – you may be right, but is it useful ?

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    • I can’t say I really care whether or not what the professor saying is “useful”. The point is, surely, that it’s rubbish. If he is saying – and it seems he is – that human behaviour is no more than instinctive reactions to stimuli of the moment, and that one’s personality (or character, or whatever one wants to call it) is of little consequence in determining how one behaves, then one would expect most people to react in the same way to the same stimuli. And it is a verifiable fact that this is not the case.

      I’m afraid I can’t see this as anything other than yet another attempt to belittle the importance of literature.

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      • Posted by Carolyn Deverson on September 26, 2011 at 9:56 pm

        “Research in psychology laboratories indicate that the concept of an underlying human character that determines to a great extent how people think and behave is weak; and that the thought and behaviour of humans is far more likely to be influenced by the stimulus of the moment. Since fiction – i.e. novels, short stories, plays – focus primarily on character rather than on the stimulus of the moment, the understanding fiction provides of human behaviour is unrealistic and spurious. Therefore, fiction should be enjoyed merely as a self-referential entity. We must not allow that fiction has any connection with the reality that lies outside it.”

        I think that people in extreme situations do react generally very similarly – people steal if they are desperately hungry whatever their usual stance would be to theft, people kill in self-defence, people act very oddly in wartime – very straight, honourable people will kill willy-nilly during a war and rationalise it perfectly happily and often they will do things they can’t rationalise. But I have to say I know this mostly because I have read it in fiction! Though from my own personal experience as someone who thinks of themselves as rational, greenish, aware of issues and who definitely things some things are more important than individuals (Monte Cassino perhaps more than the soldiers even though my father was there, works of great literary value, wonderful buildings, etc), I was amused at my reaction when snorkelling in the coral reef.

        There were signs up telling us to be careful of the reef etc. And I recall thinking if I could save the coral reef but it would cost my life, I would be choosing my life. That goes against most of my principles and what I see as my character, but that’s the way it is.

        I think in normal situations, your character and personality is what sways you (though some people are very easily swayed by others around them, but perhaps that is because of the character), but when things get more difficult the situation does guide behavioiur.

        But I don’t know that that invalidates fiction as a pointer to real life experiences and realistic behaviour.

        Cheers, Caro.

      • Yes, it may well be that in extreme situations, our instincts become the predominant factor in determining our behaviour. But Prof Currie’s contention appears to be that our instinctive reactions to external stimuli are the predominant factor in all situations, everyday as well as extreme, so that our underlying personalities are irrelevant. And from this, he goes on to say that literature, which purports to depct human behaviour accurately, doesn’t. And therefore, literature cannot be taken seriously as an accurate representation of reality. This is pure and utter guff.

  8. The old root-and-branch thing again…Biological/evolutionary constraints are at the root of our ethical/aesthetic/intellectual propensities, therefore, all our ethical/aesthetic/intellectual activity is nothing but biological etc. etc.

    Acorns grow into oaks, and oaks are not the same thing as acorns. Evolution and biology are obviously tremendously important in understanding what we humans are, but we do have this thing called culture…

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    • Ah, but the positivists will claim that our culture is also purely a product of evolution, and nothing more. That we are all therefore no more than mere machines, programmed to behave in certain ways. That seems to be, for instance Olaf Stapledon’s view in the science fiction book “Star Maker” I wrote about here recently: “You think listening to Beethoven’s string quartets provides you with an experience that you call “spiritual”? nah! – it’s just the way you evolved, mate! Here are these extra-terrestrial beings who evolved differently, and they reckon they get spiritual experiences not from certain sounds, as you do, but from certain smells! You see how silly you look now?”

      I suggested some time back that the greatest works of art acknowledge a mystery at the heart of human existence. I really do not know what perverse pleasure people get from their dogged determination to reduce everything to as basic a level as they possibly can. Such an outlook seems to me to belittle not merely literature, but all human activity.

      Reply

  9. Ah, but the positivists will claim…
    As I used to say in college, they are nothing but running dog lackeys of the empiricist scourge! Now, I love David Hume and other empiricists, but the Positivists are just cranks.

    I happen to be quite interested in this epistemological knot, and I’ve wasted a lot of time on it. This mechanistic-reductionist view that is expressed in your quotation doesn’t even make sense. Just the way you’re evolved?? So what? What does that prove? And what’s so silly about getting spiritual feelings from certain smells? Ask any dog!

    The whole metaphor of mind-as-machine is a real dead end too, as I discuss in these posts: http://iamyouasheisme.wordpress.com/?s=%22second+nature%22

    I’m a hardcore sceptic, scientific method guy – not a New Agey type – but reductionism is just that. As Spinoza called it, ‘reduction to ignorance.’

    Reply

    • It wasn’t, to be fair, a quotation. I was engaging in the time-honoured practice of putting words into peoples’ mouths.

      I’ll read the posts of yours you link to. I have no background in philosophy, and am also far from being a New Age crank, but I do find myself recoiling from reductionism.

      Reply

  10. Posted by alan on September 27, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    I’m struggling with your notion that evolved things are programmed. By whom?
    Why is a machine mere ?
    This reminds me of a conversation where someone said that someone’s relationship was ‘just sex’. I suppose that my problem with this statement was that I could never regard sex as ‘just’ in either sense of the word…
    One final word on the subject of the situation guiding behaviour – I’ve read that the evidence is that id people have been trained appropriately or have time to think about a situation then they tend behave better. An example being that people’s behaviour on the Titanic was generally quite good. Culture does matter, but it takes time.

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    • It is surely reasonable to use the word “mere” when something one considers important is missing. It is reasonable to speak of “Mere X” when one had been expecting (X+Y), but encounters X without the Y; and when, further, one considers Y to be important – more important, perhaps, than X itself.

      In the case of the expression “mere sex”, if someone is so reprehensibly un-cynical as to expect sex to be accompanied by such qualities as mutual regard and love and trust and affection and commitment and all that kind of sentimental nonsense, then it is reasonable to use the term “mere” when these qualities are absent.

      And similarly with the expression “mere machines”. If humankind as seen as machines, in that their behaviour is mechanical, consisting only of certain reactions to certain stimuli, then, no matter how complex or otherwise these reactions may be, such a view of mankind is, to my mind at least, missing something very important. Exactly what it is that is missing is complex and elusive, but it is precisely this “missing element” that the greatest of novelists and short story writers and dramatists have set out to explore.

      What is missing in the view of humans as “mere machines” (and I use the word “mere” advisedly) is, I think, the acknowledgement, at the very least, that there is a great mystery at the very heart of human existence: what “human consciousness” is is a profound mystery, and is likely to remain so. This is not to say we shouldn’t try to understand as much as we can, either through science or – as creative writers do – through the imagination, but, as with the universe itself, we are unlikly even to come close to plumbing the depths. I think we are unlikely even to arrive at a satisfactory definition of “consciousness”.

      Professor Currie claims that there is no missing element, and, hence, all the efforts of Shakespeare, Austen, Tolstoy and co are effectively so much junk. Or, at best, mere trifles with which to while away a few idle hours.

      It is surely obvious from experience that, except perhaps in extreme cases, we react in different ways to different stimuli, and that what we term our “personalities” or our “characters” are defined by these differences. If, say, the two of us are in a pub together, and we notice that a person sitting close to us has dropped a twenty pound note without realising it, then you, as an honest and responsible citizen, would no doubt pick it up and return it. But if I notice it first, then, being a thieving reprobate, I’d try to pocket it without anyone noticing. We would be reacting differently to the same stimulus, and this difference helps define at least some aspect of our respective underlying characters. So it seems to me self-evident nonsense to claim that underlying characters don’t exist, or that, if they do, they play a negligible role in determining our behaviour.

      So one can but wonder what Prof Currie’s motive can be in making so absurd a claim. The desire to belittle the importance of literature seems to be a possible explanation. Or maybe the good professor is merely reacting, as Lichanos suggests above, to the stimulus of having to publish something despite having nothing to say. Given that there is no such thing as an “underlying character”, we’d all no doubt react in exactly the same way were we to be subjected to the same stimulus.

      Reply

  11. I don’t know, there are many things that might be understood by all this. Perhaps it’s a matter of perspective. If I examine each individual action I undertake separately, I will probably come to the conclusion that every action is based on the stimulus of the moment. But if I reflect more widely over my life and start to consider actions collectively, I’m much more like to find patterns in my behaviour which I might consider my character.

    Human-beings at the very least construct characters for themselves, so how is literature portraying this not portraying “reality”? (After all, we’ve already decided that post c19th we can’t come to any objective understanding of “reality”). Fiction in this sense isn’t self-referential: it is referring to an understanding, or a perception, of the self which we all recognise within ourselves and thus can identify with when we read it on the page.

    Isn’t literature anywhere more a mingling of character and momentary stimuli anyway? The stimuli being generally referred to as “the plot”. Wasn’t Werther a great and virtuous man, happy in his self and life, who happened one day to fall in love?

    Reply

    • As you say, the idea that writers did not consider something so obvious as the fact that people react in certain ways to certain stimuli is too absurd even to be contemplated. But how people react to stimuli is surely what defines their “underlying character”. Werther reacts to the stimulus of meeting Lotte in a way that is consistent with his underlying character: after all, other people have also met Lotte without reacting as Werther does. And the nature of Werther’s indivdual reaction to meeting Lotte reveals the nature of his individual “underlying character” – the very thing Prof Currie claims doesn’t exist, or is negligible. What Prof Currie seems to be saying is so obviously absurd, that I can’t help wondering if I have misunderstood him. But I read his article over again last night – and no, I don’t think I have.

      After all, we’ve already decided that post c19th we can’t come to any objective understanding of “reality”

      Yes, this aspect struck me also. Prof Currie’s contention that underlying human character doesn’t exist, or at best plays but a negligible role in determining human behaviour, has in common with various strands of modern literary theory its insistence that literature can refer to nothing other than itself, and is thus no more than a self-referential parlour game. If even literary academics are denigrating the importance of literature in this manner, is it any wonder that serious literature is becoming increasingly marginalised in society? Is it any wonder that our fifteen-year-old daughter, in the top English stream of a school that consistently receives good reports from OFSTED, has only been obliged (and that very recently) to read one – yes, just one – book from cover to cover in all her years in education? (And that book is Of Mice and Men, a very straight-forward book that she could easily have read some five or so years earlier.)

      (Shakespeare? Nah! – we don’t do nuffink like that in schools these days … the poor darlings would find it dull…)

      Reply

  12. Posted by Hadrian Wise on September 28, 2011 at 11:37 am

    If you are measuring a small number of short-lived responses in laboratory conditions you are clearly going to find the decisive stimulus – whatever the subject’s character – is the immediate one.

    Badly designed experiment if you ask me.

    Reply

    • Indeed, I suspect that is the case, although there is no description in the article of the design. That, in itself, is a bit fishy. Something must have been very wrong with the experiment, or with the interpretation of the results, given the conclusions that have been drawn. And yet the TLS devotes two large closely typed pages to this!

      Reply

  13. Here’s a very long post of mine that touches on these notions of mind, free will, mechanism, and determinism:

    http://iamyouasheisme.wordpress.com/2005/02/10/free-will-and-all-that/

    Reply

    • Yes, Been there done that – now I would be grateful to be advsed on how to add some words – forming a signature motto at the end of my messages I am so sorry to be off topic again

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    • Thanks for that Lichanos, I have read that over, but will probably need to read it again before I can comment on it. As I said, I do not have a background in philosophy, but I am a statistician by profession, and happen to subscribe to Bayesian probability theory – which may or may not be relevant to the subject under discussion … I don’t know, I’ll have to think about it. I’ll certainly get back to you.

      Reply

  14. …and happen to subscribe to Bayesian probability theory…

    Now, that’s something I must know more about. If you can point me to something that clearly discusses the difference between it and non-Bayesian (Pascal – ian?) I’d appreciate it. I work with statisticians, and they have explained it a bit, but they don’t quite get my questions or approach.

    Bayes is all a la mode today! I attended a lecture on Voltaire a year or so ago, and the young woman speaker was rhapsodizing about how useful it is for doing literary research. Hmmm….I wonder.

    Reply

    • I have no idea how Bayesian statistics can help with literary research, but it certainly works in demand forecasting! I worked for a large airline for nearly 17 years (OK – since the details are all on my LinkedIn page, I might as well mention the airline’s name – British Airways) and have been involved in the design of several generatons of demand forecasting mechanisms, and Bayesian methods certainly proved very useful in that context. But for research on Voltaire? … Oh well!

      Reply

    • Hello Lichanos,

      The textbooks I have on Bayesian statistics are all very technical, and possibly not what you’re looking for. (If you are, then this is the one I findmost useful.) But if I were asked what I think the differences are between Bayesian statistics and classical statistics, I’d answer as follows (and please note that even interpretations of Bayesian statistics are controversial):

      Bayesian probability theory, unlike classical probability theory, sees probability not as an immutable value, but as a measure of our understanding of the situation. To illustrate what I mean, consider the classic case of a coin being tossed repeatedly. Classical probability tells us that the probability of it turning up heads or tails on any given throw is 0.5, irrespective of what we had previously observed. If, say, the first 10 throws all come up heads, classical probability will insist that the probability of it coming up heads on the 11th throw will remain 0.5. Even if the first hundred … thousand, however many you want … all come up heads, the probability will remain unchanged.

      However, that is not what a human being with a fallible human mind will think. If a coin keeps coming up heads repeatedly, then, based on that evidence alone, the human observer is likely to think that the coin is biased. Bayesian probability theory will indicate likewise. It makes no assumption about the nature of the coin: it will start off assuming that it’s fair (i.e. its prior probability distribution is that there is a probability of 0.5 turning up heads, and 0.5 turning up tails). But if it keeps observing significantly more heads than tails across time, it will revise its understanding of the situation, and increase the probability of it turning up heads the next throw. With each new observation, the “prior probability distribution” is revised to give us a “posterior probability distribution”; and at the next observation, what had previously been the “posterior probability distribution” becomes the “prior probability distribution”, and so on. So the probability distribution is always changing to reflect our understanding of the situation.

      Many claim this is inherently wrong, as it builds into the model our subjective impressions. Others claim that this is the most objective method of all, since it makes minimum assumptions (i.e. in our example above, we aren’t assuming that the coin is unbiased – we aren’t even assuming that the degree to which it may or my not be biased remains constant over time!). From my perspective, all I know is that it works better than most other methods of forecasting. Suppose I am forecasting the number of passengers in Business Class on Tuesday midday flight from London to Madrid. We usually get around 25 passengers, say; suppose also (I am making these figures up) that both this mean of 25, and some variance around it, has been observed to be steady over time. Then, suddenly, we observe 10 passengers for a flight. Is this just a one-off? Or is it the start of a new trend? We don’t know. But the Bayesian updating formulae will take into account the prior distribution, work into it the new observation, and will evaluate a new probability distribution. If the post distribution had been fairly steady, the mean of that distribution won’t decrease dramatically from the 25 it had been. And if subsequent observations indicate that the 10 we had observed was just a one-off, it will return to the 25 fairly quickly. However, if subsequent observations indicate that the demand level has indeed decreased dramatically, then the Bayesian updating formulae will adjust the probability distribution to reflect this. After each observation, the posterior distribution will give the best estimate of our understanding of the “true level of demand” at any given time, given what we have observed to date. Of course, only God knows the true level of demand: the Bayesian probability is an estimate of our understanding of God’s mind. Although why God is busying Himself with demand levels for business passengers from London to Madrid on Tuesday midday flights is anyone’s guess…

      An intersting application of Bayesian statistics is in Bertrand’s paradox. Classical probability theory cannot solve this, but Jaynes’ solution, using Bayesian ideas, seems to me most convincing.

      Reply

      • Hi!

        First, the mention of Voltaire came up because the young scholar said that some literary search engines employ a Bayesian algorithm. She didn’t understand the details of course, and I have not pursued it. Not sure how it would apply.

        Your summary is pretty much what I had learned on my own and from my friends here. I understand that one of the first practical applications of Bayesian probability was in a search for a sunken submarine. Divide the domain into a grid, calculate probability, search, recalculate, etc. Sort of how humans work, isn’t it? We constantly adjust our expectations.

        I get that this approach is not the classical one, i.e., that the probability is mutable, and not set from the get go. What I do not get at ALL is how the probability function is adjusted as observations are accumulated. It seems to me that there is no analytical way to do this – it must be subjective. Now, first there is the ‘philosophical’ question of whether it ‘should’ be done, i.e., is probability immutable or not?, and then there is the practical question of HOW to do it.

        I am sure that clever people can come up with nifty ways to make these adjustments, as you have with demand forecasting, but it seems to me that the only way to assess them is by their performance. That’s fine in the realm of systems modeling, forecasting, planning, etc., but it doesn’t cut it for science or epistemology. Saying, ‘Well, it works!’ is what I do when I wear my civil engineer hat, but it doesn’t make me think I know anything, other than how to muddle through. (Big issue here of the nature of TRUTH, KNOWLEDGE and RIGHT OPINION.) Still, I’m curious about the mechanics.

        I am glad to hear that this is all ‘controversial’ for one rason or another. Probability never seemed to me to be an a very good philosophical basis. It is tightly linked with questions about determinism and causation.

        In my work, as in yours, I am surrounded by people, often econometric types, who do demand forecasting and other analyses, and it always seems to me that they are picking numbers out of a hat. They don’t have the constant feedback that you do. You can always test your forecasts against ticket sales. A demand forecast for a potential highway extension goes on the shelf and probably is not examined ever again, once it has been used to make a decision on funding.

        The technological-industrial economy requires numbers, requires forecasts, because people must make decisions, and nobody wants to take responsibility for simply exercising judgment, and even good judgment requires some sort of evidentiary basis, or a forecast, but the entire process has become so ramified, dense with jargon, consultants, textbooks, unthinking drones who plug in numbers, that it seems like a bit of circus to me. And then you come along and say, “Well, it’s controversial, this Bayesian stuff…” Don’t want to say THAT at a meeting with a client!!

        Oh, and not to mention that the data input to many of these forecasts is not at all beyond reproach. I assume that you get constant and accurate data on ticket sales.

      • In brief, Bayes’ theorem states that:

        Probability of (A given B)

        … is proportional to …

        Probability of (B given A) x (Probability of A)

        This can be ascertained with some simple examples where all the probabilities are known – e.g. we have in a bag 15 red cricket balls, and 5 white cricket balls; and 2 red tennis balls, and 28 white tennis balls.

        A ball is drawn at random.

        What is the probability that the ball is white? Answer – 33/50 = 0.66.

        But suppose you know that the ball you have pulled out is a cricket ball. Now what is the probability that the ball is white? The answer is 5/20 = 0.25.

        Now, let us use Bayes’ theorem to derive the same answer:

        Probability (ball is white given that ball is a cricket ball)

        = [Probability (Ball is White)]
        times
        [Probability (Ball is cricket ball given that it is white)]
        divided by
        [Probability (ball is a cricket Ball)]

        =

        (33/50)
        times
        (5/33)
        divided by
        ( 20/50)

        = 5/20
        = 0.25, as expected

        But we may also use it in cases that are less clear-cut.

        So, if we have a prior distribution (A), and an observation (B), then the posterior distribution [i.e. the probability distribution given the latest observation] can be derived from Probability of (B given A) [i.e. probability of observation given the prior distribution] times Probability of A [i.e. Prior Distribution] . Note that at any updating, we know the latter two. So the posterior distribution can be derived from these.

        From this, one may derive updating formulae. (I didn’t – I relied on the work done by professors of statistics: that’s what professors of statistics are for!) We start with a prior distribution that seems reasonable, and then keep updating using our observations.

        Hope that makes sense…

        (PS Of course we don’t tell clients it is controversial! We justtell them it works… 🙂 )

  15. Posted by alan on September 29, 2011 at 8:20 pm

    People are not coins.
    I hope we can agree upon that even if we can’t agree whether people are machines, mere machines, or something else entirely.
    Analogy lies at the root of all evil, and a lot of good literature.

    Reply

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