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Explore the key differences in frequentist vs Bayesian stats, including probability interpretations and data scientist preferences.

Explore the key differences in frequentist vs Bayesian stats, including probability interpretations and data scientist preferences.


Frequentist and Bayesian statistics represent different approaches to applying probability theory to statistical analysis. At a high level:

  • Frequentist statistics relies on the idea of repeatedly sampling from a population. It uses probability to represent long-run frequencies of events.

  • Bayesian statistics incorporates prior knowledge and beliefs to make probabilistic statements about unknown parameters. It uses Bayes' theorem to update probabilities based on observed data.

The debate between frequentist and Bayesian philosophies has persisted for decades in the statistics community. But it has taken on increased relevance as Bayesian methods have become more prominent in fields like machine learning.

This article provides an overview of frequentist and Bayesian statistics. We'll cover the history, philosophical foundations, goals, applications, and common misconceptions related to each approach. By the end, you'll better understand the differences between these schools of thought. And you'll have guidance on when you may want to apply each one.

A Brief History of the Frequentist and Bayesian Approaches

The frequentist approach has its origins in the thinking of mathematician John Venn in the 1800s, and was popularized by statisticians including Ronald Fisher, Jerzy Neyman and Egon Pearson in the early 1900s. They developed frequentist statistical methods like p-values, confidence intervals, and hypothesis testing that dominated statistics for much of the 20th century.

The Bayesian approach is named after Thomas Bayes, an 18th century mathematician who studied conditional probability. His work was extended by Pierre-Simon Laplace and Leonard Jimmie Savage in the 20th century to develop a comprehensive Bayesian statistical framework. With computational advances in the late 1900s, Bayesian methods became more feasible and popular for applied statistics and machine learning.

The frequentist school was the orthodox approach to statistics for decades, emphasizing sampling, probabilities, and controlling for Type I and Type II errors. The Bayesian approach was viewed as more controversial and subjective. From the 1990s onwards, with more computing power and the growth of data science, Bayesian methods saw a resurgence and are now widely used alongside frequentist methods. But the philosophical debate continues between these schools of thought.

Key Philosophical Differences

The frequentist and Bayesian approaches have fundamentally different perspectives on probability that lead to philosophical differences in how they view statistics.

Frequentist Interpretation of Probability

The frequentist interpretation of probability is based on the proportion of times an event occurs after repeating an experiment many times. Probability is viewed as the limit of the relative frequency of an event, if the experiment were to be repeated an infinite number of times.

For example, if you flipped a coin 100 times and it landed on heads 60 times, the frequentist probability of heads would be 60/100 = 0.6. The more times you repeat the experiment, the closer the proportion of heads will get to the true underlying probability.

Frequentist probability is objective and does not depend on anyone's subjective degree of belief. It focuses purely on the frequencies observed in data after repeating an experiment.

Bayesian Interpretation of Probability

The Bayesian view of probability is fundamentally subjective. Probability represents a degree of belief in a hypothesis or event.

Bayesians speak of prior and posterior probabilities. The prior probability represents an initial degree of belief before seeing any data. As new evidence comes in, Bayes' theorem is used to update the prior to arrive at a posterior probability.

Unlike the frequentist interpretation, Bayesian probability is not based on limiting frequencies in repeated experiments. It reflects the uncertainty in the world and the degree of belief in an event based on the current information available.

These philosophical differences lead to diverging perspectives on statistics. However, both interpretations of probability have their merits in certain domains. There is no consensus on which approach is better in all cases.

Goals and Applications: When to Use Each Approach

Frequentist and Bayesian statistics are suited for different goals and types of analyses. Here's a quick overview of some of the main use cases:

Frequentist Methods

  • Hypothesis testing: Frequentist methods like t-tests, ANOVA, and chi-square are designed for hypothesis testing and determining if results are statistically significant. P-values are the primary metric.

  • Confidence intervals: Frequentists use confidence intervals to estimate unknown population parameters. The confidence level indicates the probability that the interval contains the true parameter.

  • Goodness of fit tests: Methods like the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test are used to determine how well a statistical model fits observed data.

  • Experimental design and A/B testing: Frequentist approaches lend themselves well to experimentation and testing for significant differences between conditions.

Bayesian Methods

  • Parameter estimation: Bayesians directly estimate parameters like means, proportions, and regression coefficients. The posterior distribution provides the whole range of plausible values.

  • Predictive modeling: Bayesian models are popular for prediction tasks. The posterior predictive distribution can forecast new observations.

  • Small sample inference: Bayesian approaches can derive meaningful results from smaller datasets by incorporating priors. Frequentist methods often require larger samples to work well.

The boundaries aren't always clear cut. Some methods like linear regression are used in both frameworks. But overall frequentist statistics is best suited for hypothesis testing and significance, while Bayesian statistics excels at parameter estimation and prediction.

Hypothesis Testing: P-Values vs Posterior Probabilities

Frequentist and Bayesian statistics take fundamentally different approaches to hypothesis testing.

In the frequentist framework, hypothesis testing relies on p-values. The p-value represents the probability of obtaining results at least as extreme as the observed data, under the assumption that the null hypothesis is true. A small p-value (typically below 0.05) indicates strong evidence against the null hypothesis. P-values are based on the long-run frequencies and probabilities across hypothetical repeats of the experiment or study.

In contrast, Bayesian hypothesis testing relies on posterior probabilities of the hypotheses. Using Bayesian inference, the prior probabilities of the hypotheses are updated based on the observed data to determine posterior probabilities. The hypothesis with the highest posterior probability is considered the most likely given the data. Rather than acting as a threshold for rejecting the null like with p-values, the posterior probabilities quantitatively indicate the relative credibility of each hypothesis.

A key difference is that p-values depend only on the data and test assumptions, while Bayesian posteriors also incorporate prior information. P-values treat the null hypothesis as either true or false, while Bayesian methods allow assessing hypotheses in a graded fashion. For many scientists and statisticians, Bayesian hypothesis testing provides a more intuitive and natural framework for quantifying evidence and uncertainty. However, there is active discussion around the proper use and interpretation of both p-values and posterior probabilities in practice.

Parameter Estimation: Confidence vs Credible Intervals

A key difference between frequentist and Bayesian statistics is in how they estimate parameters.

Frequentists use confidence intervals to estimate parameters. A 95% confidence interval essentially says, "If we repeated this process 100 times, 95 of the confidence intervals would contain the true parameter value." Confidence intervals indicate the reliability of the parameter estimate. Wider intervals mean more uncertainty.

Bayesians use credible intervals to estimate parameters. A 95% credible interval indicates there is a 95% probability the parameter lies within the interval, based on the observed data and incorporated prior beliefs. Credible intervals quantify the uncertainty around the parameter. Wider intervals also mean more uncertainty.

Some key points:

  • Confidence intervals rely solely on data. Credible intervals incorporate data and prior beliefs.

  • Confidence intervals treat parameters as fixed but unknown. Credible intervals treat parameters as random variables.

  • Confidence intervals can't assign probability to parameters. Credible intervals can assign probabilities.

  • Confidence and credible intervals often yield numerically similar results with large samples. More differences emerge with small samples.

  • Confidence intervals either contain the true parameter value or not. Credible intervals assign probability.

The frequentist vs Bayesian approach to parameter estimation hinges on philosophical differences in how probability and uncertainty are interpreted. Both offer useful tools for estimating unknown population parameters.

Model Comparison: Likelihood Ratios vs Bayes Factors

One key difference between frequentist and Bayesian statistics is how model comparison is performed. Frequentists typically compare models using likelihood ratios and information criteria like AIC and BIC. Bayesians perform model comparisons using Bayes Factors.

The likelihood ratio test compares the maximum likelihood of one model to the maximum likelihood of a second model. The ratio of these two likelihoods can be used to evaluate which model fits the data better. Likelihood ratio tests are commonly used for nested model comparisons in frequentist statistics.

Bayes factors provide the ratio of the marginal likelihoods of two competing models. So rather than just comparing maximum likelihoods, Bayes factors integrate over the entire parameter space. The Bayes factor quantifies the evidence provided by the data in favor of one model compared to another. Values greater than 1 favor the numerator model.

Calculating Bayes factors can be challenging, as it requires integrating out parameters. But advances in computational methods have made Bayes factors more accessible. Bayes factors avoid some issues with p-values and likelihood ratios related to null hypothesis testing.

In general, the Bayesian approach to model comparison is more comprehensive but also more complex than the frequentist approach. There are times when both likelihood ratios and Bayes factors can provide similar results. The choice often depends on philosophical preferences, goals, computational constraints, and the models being compared.

Machine Learning: Frequentist or Bayesian Approaches?

Machine learning presents an interesting case in the frequentist vs Bayesian debate. While some machine learning algorithms are inherently frequentist or Bayesian, both approaches can also be applied to developing and evaluating models.

Frequentist machine learning focuses on algorithms that maximize likelihoods and minimize errors. Some examples include linear regression, SVM, and neural networks trained with backpropagation. The goal is to optimize model parameters to best fit the training data. Model selection and evaluation often use metrics like training and test error rates.

Bayesian machine learning incorporates prior beliefs and uncertainty. Popular techniques include naive Bayes classifiers, Gaussian processes, and neural networks trained with Bayesian techniques like variational inference. These focus on posterior probability distributions over models and parameters. Evaluation involves metrics like posterior predictive checks.

For supervised learning tasks, frequentist approaches focus on minimizing a loss function, while Bayesian methods aim to quantify uncertainty in predictions. Frequentist models yield point estimates, while Bayes provides posterior distributions.

Neither frequentist nor Bayesian machine learning is universally superior. Factors like computational complexity, flexibility, interpretability, and performance on different tasks and metrics should guide the choice. Hybrid approaches are also possible. Understanding both frameworks makes for a more well-rounded machine learning practitioner.


There are several common myths and misconceptions regarding frequentist and Bayesian statistics. It's important to clarify these in order to properly apply the methods.

Myth: Bayesian methods are always preferable for small data sets

This isn't necessarily true. While Bayesians argue that incorporating prior information helps with small data, frequentists counter that subjective priors can bias analyses. There are techniques like empirical Bayes that leverage data to construct objective priors.

Myth: Frequentist methods are always more objective

Frequentist statistics rely on pre-specified levels of significance, which is somewhat arbitrary. Results can depend heavily on sample size. Bayesian methods with uninformative priors can be quite objective in some cases.

Myth: Frequentists can't quantify uncertainty

While confidence intervals have a different interpretation than Bayesian credible intervals, they still provide uncertainty estimates regarding parameters. P-values also provide some notion of the strength of evidence.

Myth: Bayesian methods are too complex for everyday use

Thanks to computational advances, user-friendly Bayesian software exists for many common techniques like regression, estimation, and hypothesis testing. The basics of Bayes' theorem are also quite intuitive.

Myth: Frequentists never use priors

Empirical Bayes and hierarchical modeling make use of data-based priors. Restricted likelihood and penalized regression also encode some prior information. The divide is not always so clear cut in practice.

The important thing is applying the right tool for the particular problem and data at hand. Broad claims about one paradigm always being better should be viewed with skepticism.

Conclusion: Picking the Right Tool for the Job

The frequentist vs Bayesian debate has raged for decades without a clear resolution. However, the good news is that as a data scientist or statistician, you don't have to pick a side. The two approaches offer different tools that can be used for different needs.

Bayesian methods tend to excel when it comes to:

  • Incorporating prior knowledge and beliefs

  • Modeling and prediction tasks

  • Sparse datasets or intricate models

  • Updating knowledge sequentially

Frequentist methods tend to be preferable for:

  • Strict hypothesis testing and significance testing

  • Design of experiments and randomized controlled trials

  • Establishing reproducibility and objectivity

  • Regulatory contexts requiring set confidence levels

The choice often depends on your goals, data availability, preferences in interpretation, and field or industry context. With experience, you'll develop an intuition for when to apply a Bayesian or frequentist analysis.

For many problems, techniques from both frameworks can complement each other. You may even blend Bayesian and frequentist ideas together in a single analysis. The fields of statistics and machine learning will continue advancing both philosophies.

So rather than treating them as wholly incompatible, recognize frequentist and Bayesian statistics as different tools in your analytical toolkit. Learn the core distinctions, then reach for the right approach for the job. The choice depends on the problem, not philosophical commitment. With flexibility and knowledge of both paradigms, you'll be equipped to tackle a wide range of statistical challenges.

Published on

Jan 16, 2024



David Dobrynin

David Dobrynin


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