Better than an exclamation point.

In statistics, a popular approach is to think of the statistician as having a set of views (“priors” or “prior distributions”) that are based on past evidence and when new evidence comes in, one integrates that information in and forms a new set of beliefs (“update your priors”).  So, for example, if I think I am brilliant in math, a series of poor math test grades even after studying might convince me to reassess that belief.  Alternately, I could stick with my priors and treat the new evidence as flawed or not informative because I am mad or upset.  This is especially applicable on days when new, perhaps startling or emotional, information comes out and everyone, or at least a bunch of bloggers, jump in to say what they think is really going on.  In many cases I think they are largely working off their priors, rather than off the new information.

In light of that, it is often best to avoid making strong claims about who did what and why when so little is known.  One should not presume motives are fully understood when there may have simply been a miscommunication or just standard human error.  One should be charitable when filling in the blanks.  Especially when most things are blanks.


14 comments for “Priors

  1. Kaimi
    June 12, 2014 at 9:44 am

    Good points, Frank. I agree, there are lots of unknowns here, and we’re all probably relying to some extent or other on our priors.

  2. Maggie
    June 12, 2014 at 10:22 am

    True, but Bayesian inference suggests we should be able to update our priors in light of the new evidence. Those who believe the church has made significant strides forward in openness and tolerance of criticism now have a piece of evidence that would tend to contradict that hypothesis, while those who believe the church is rigid and dogmatic have a piece of evidence that would tend to confirm their hypothesis. Presumably both groups would be increasing their estimate of the probability that the church will respond negatively to perceived criticism and enforce orthodoxy, just as both groups should have reacted to many previous indications (e.g., most Uchtdorf talks, increasing commentary on troubling church history, websites attempting to address homosexuality more lovingly, etc.) by increasing their belief in the church’s openness and willingness to entertain heterodoxy.

  3. Maggie
    June 12, 2014 at 10:27 am

    To clarify – I believe this is what you are suggesting we do, I just want to be sure we’re not saying “Well, this piece of evidence is worthless, and therefore I will not update my priors”

  4. June 12, 2014 at 10:29 am

    Maggie, your phrasing suggests a great deal about your priors for how the Church should behave. I imagine someone with different priors would have expressed the same sentiment without making it sound like the Church is moving the wrong way.

  5. Maggie
    June 12, 2014 at 10:36 am

    Very true! I do believe the church should be working to increase openness and tolerate heterodoxy. I presume from your response that you don’t (?). I think the point here, though, is less about what our priors are, and more about whether we are willing to update them (as I have been doing in light of what I have considered very awesome actions by the church in the last few years). This recent piece of evidence is by no means a killing stroke for those like me who hope to see less rigidity, but it is no less a piece of evidence – right?

  6. June 12, 2014 at 10:50 am

    Sure, but let me point out that you have (at least) two sets of beliefs that you can update:

    1. The one you mention.
    2. Your beliefs about what the Church should do, in light of what those with the stewardship have chosen to do.

  7. Maggie
    June 12, 2014 at 11:10 am

    I got you! Very good point.

    I should perhaps clarify that I am ‘active but not believing’ – I hope this doesn’t make you feel like I’m trolling. I go to church with my husband and son, but have also found another church where I feel less disturbed and more spiritually uplifted. Because my husband loves the church, because I have good friends there, and because I see so many things to love in the church, I still feel interested in what goes on there, but because I no longer believe that the LDS GA’s have exclusive access to God, #2 updates my priors in the same way statements by the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis do – wise men who pray often and earnestly strive to act rightly have said a thing, and I would be wise to consider them, but as a weighted piece of evidence, it does not carry more strength then my own prayers and efforts to connect with God.

  8. June 12, 2014 at 11:11 am

    Frank, my impression of your idea applied to Church practices is that the general rules for Church discipline have a great deal of prior evidence regarding how the Church acts. The rules were laid out from the beginnings of the restoration. Those expressing dismay or shock about current events are either being naive or disingenuous.

  9. June 12, 2014 at 11:22 am

    Maggie, I’m sorry to hear that. But you are welcome to stick around. We’re low on people who know what Bayesians are. And maybe your own prayer and efforts will lead you back.

  10. June 12, 2014 at 11:26 am

    Jim, well I think that is your prior. Personally I could not say. I think it would be really hard for me to know where the line is for church discipline. I can’t fault someone else as naive for also not being sure or thinking the line is somewhere else. Thankfully I am no one’s Bishop and so don’t need to judge anybody.

  11. Martin James
    June 12, 2014 at 12:09 pm


    Well, the only way many stay in the church is to be naive or disingenuous.

    I have been posting from the start that OW was a schism and that it clearly was a group that met the terms of temple recommend interview question about groups opposed to the church, but didn’t get much support around here for those positions.

    I was confused by the church’s lack of action. Apparently, they are just slow.

    However, I do think that OW is schism and that taking disciplinary action against a few leaders will not heal the schism.

    These are the opening salvos of a religious war.

    War is hell but dramatic as all get out!

  12. June 12, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    Frank, maybe this is where we differ. I am continually confronted with situations where I must make judgements. As near as I can judge, no human interaction can take place without some obligatory judgement.

    My judgment about Church discipline is that it is painful but necessary.

  13. June 12, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    Martin, I agree that there elements of naïveté and disingenuousness in all of us. It tends to be a matter of focus as much as anything. I think this is a bad thing only if one loses focus on the most important considerations. To help keep my focus centered on the most important priorities, I listen to Church leaders. There are many other issues that distract us. For them, I can afford to be naive.

  14. Jax
    June 12, 2014 at 2:35 pm


    I think in many areas there is confusion about where “the line” is. And that is why the church obligingly lets people know when they have crossed it and gives them a chance to change/repent, as long as the act isn’t obviously flagrant (adultery, murder, etc). The church isn’t playing a “Gotcha” game with us, they want to help us be good/better, not look for reasons to punish.


    If you aren’t making judgments then you are doing things all wrong! It is given to all men to judge between good and evil, right and wrong. Don’t make final judgments (John is going to Heaven/Hell), but by all means judge between, safe situations and dangerous ones, helpful ideas and malicious ones, and good people and bad ones. We fought a war for agency, and now the test is to see what choices we’ll make with it. Making choices without judging the people, situation, possible consequences, etc., is a VERY poor idea.

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