Bayesian Inference

6 Mar 2017 - 960 Words
Explaining the basics of bayesian inference with the example of flipping a coin 💰
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A good place to start when trying to understanding Bayesian inference is to consider how to estimate the parameter $\theta$ in a Bernoulli distribution $X∼Ber(θ)$. A Bernoulli distribution is a simple distribution with a fixed chance of success.

\begin{align} P(X=1)=\theta \\
P(X=0)=1-\theta \end{align}

As an intuitive example $X$ can be the result of flipping a coin, here $\theta$ represents the probability of flipping a heads so

\begin{align} P(X=1)&=P(\text{flip}=\text{heads})=\theta \\
P(X=0)&=P(\text{flip}=\text{tails})=1-\theta \end{align}

Now assume you are given the data $D$ of having seen $n$ independent identically distributed (iid) samples of the Bernoulli random variable or $n$ flips of the coin $D = \{x_1,…,x_n\}$ where $x_i \in \{0,1\}$ or in our example of the coin $x_i \in\{\text{tails}, \text{heads}\}$.

Let’s define $k$ to be the number of successes out of the n samples so$k \in \{0,…,n\}$. In our example $k$ is the number of heads in $n$ flips

For our simple coin example lets assume $n = 3$ and $k = 3$ so we have seen three heads in a row.

Frequentist estimation

One method of estimating $\theta$ is to maximise the “likelihood” of having seen the data $D$. We can define that likelihood as

\begin{align} P(D|\theta) & = \prod_{i=1}^nP(X = x_i|\theta) \\
& = \prod_{i=1}^n\theta^{x_i}(1-\theta)^{1-x_i} \\
& = \theta^k(1-\theta)^{n-k} \end{align}

The $\theta$ that maximises this likelihood is called the maximum likelihood estimator denoted $\theta_{ML}$ (which makes sense 🤪).

Maximising the likelihood in practise is achieved by maximising the log of the likelihood and the result is the average of the observed data

$$ \theta_{ML} = \frac{1}{n}\sum_{i=1}^nx_i $$

In our example we have seen three heads so $x_1=x_2=x_3=1$ and then $\theta_{ML} = 1$. Therefore having seen three heads in a row we estimate the probability of seeing a fourth as $P(X=1)=\theta_{ML} = 1$.

Not exactly a genius prediction… 🤭

This is where bayesian inference comes in and the concept of having a prior opinion (like tossing a heads probably has a probability near 1/2)

Bayesian prior

In a bayesian setting we think of the parameter $\theta$ itself as a random variable and we have a prior opinion of what it’s distribution is. A good distribution to choose is the Beta distribution which itself has two parameters $a, b$. The Beta distribution pdf function is displayed in the graph below:

$\alpha$ =
$\beta$ =

We assume that $\theta$ ~ $Beta(a,b)$. In our example of the coin this graph makes sense as the density of $\theta$ (the probability of getting heads) is centred around a half (assuming you haven’t changed the graph).

Bayes’ law says


$$ P(A|B) = \frac{P(B|A)P(A)}{P(B)} $$



Using this we can say that the posterior probability is proportional to the product of the Likelihood and the Prior, or

$$ P(\theta|D)\propto P(D|\theta)*P(\theta) $$

Hence using Bayes’ theorem we can calculate the posterior distribution of $\theta$ using our initial prior and the information gained from having seen the data $D = {x_1,…,x_n}$. The posterior Distribution can be shown to also follow a Beta distribution, specifically $$ P(\theta|D) \sim Beta(a+k,b+n-k) $$

The below plot allows you to vary your prior belief with $a$ and $b$ and view the posterior probability distribution after having seen n samples with k successes (n flips with k heads)