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The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy

3.62  ·  Rating Details  ·  805 Ratings  ·  145 Reviews
Bayes' rule appears to be a straightforward, one-line theorem: by updating our initial beliefs with objective new information, we get a new and improved belief. To its adherents, it is an elegant statement about learning from experience. To its opponents, it is subjectivity run amok.

In the first-ever account of Bayes' rule for general readers, Sharon Bertsch McGrayne explo
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published May 17th 2011 by Yale University Press (first published May 14th 2011)
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Sep 03, 2012 rmn rated it it was ok
If only I had known how to use Bayesian probabilities before reading this book I could have taken the probability of my liking a book well received in a NY Times Book Review as my prior, plugged that in to a Bayesian calculation as to whether or not I would like this book, and quickly would have come up with the answer "highly unlikely" and saved myself a few hours of my life.

According to the author, Bayes' rule is the greatest mathematical equation/formula/thought process in the history of hist
Feb 18, 2012 David rated it really liked it
I think this is the first book about Bayes' theorem and its applications, for the general reader. The book does not explicitly state the theorem as a mathematical formula, until the second appendix. However, the general idea is described, as well the general ideas behind it. The history of the theorem is described in some detail.

The ebb and flow in belief in the theorem over the course of 150 years is interesting. Applying Bayes theorem requires a prior probability, and this is often poorly know
Jan 06, 2012 Michael rated it it was ok
As someone who actually works with Bayesian methods, I was very much looking forward to reading this book. The strange history of Bayes' Theorem had been briefly mentioned in other, more technical books I had read. I finally wanted to get the whole story.

Alas, that story, at least as presented in this book, turned out to be not quite so exciting. Except for the insights into Laplace's involvement, and in particular the interesting sections on Alan Turing's work, I found this to be a rather lifel
Charlene Lewis- Estornell
This was an excellent biography of Bayes' Rule, which basically glossed over Bayes himself. The author chose instead to examine the lesser known scientists and applications associated with Bayes. As a result, after reading this you are likely to call Bayes' Rule BLP Rule, for Bayes-Laplace Rule. The author was most interested in highlighting the work done by Pierre-Simone Laplace, who I feel I have come to know so much more after this biography. Prior to this book, Laplace came on my radar after ...more
Dennis Boccippio
Oct 03, 2011 Dennis Boccippio rated it really liked it
Shelves: math, 20th-century
It probably takes a special sort of person to dive into an entire book about one statistical theory, but for those so-motivated, this one pays off.

The pro's: The author has done a phenomenal job at capturing and richly detailing the very "large" personalities that have championed (or condemned) the use of Bayes' Rule through the centuries, amidst a little-known and long-simmering war that has persisted between statistical Bayesians and frequentists since the concept was first brought forward. T

Bayes' Rule is a mathematical formula that allows one to calculate a conditional probability (such as the probability that a woman has breast cancer given that she has a postive mammogram). It has many useful attributes, such as allowing one to updates ones estimates of a probability as you obtain new information, and can be adapted to deal with such basically non-numerical forms of information as expert opinion. One can also use it to estimate the probability of events that have not happened,

Rafael Maia
Dec 25, 2011 Rafael Maia rated it it was ok
I wish I had liked this book more than I actually did. Most of the stories reported are very interesting and entertaining, reflecting how academics have been fiercely debating conceptual aspects of Bayes theorem, as well as the bayesian-frequentist feud, while at the same time it was being successfully applied in many crucial issues such as finding stray atomic weapons and linking smoking to lung cancer.

However, I did not find this book well-written at all. It's just not an exciting read - and i
AJ Armstrong
Jul 12, 2012 AJ Armstrong rated it really liked it
First, a cachet: unless you are already interested in one or more of Statistics, Decision Theory, Machine Learning, or the history and philosophy of Science and Mathematics, you are probably not a member of this book's audience. However, if you are, you will find a meticulously researched, erudite, and detailed survey of the history of statistics and decision theory. Undergraduate level familiarity with statistics and a generalist understanding of Bayes' rule would be very helpful but not critic ...more
Jul 22, 2013 Herve rated it really liked it
It is the third book I read about statistics in a short while and it is probably the strangest. After my dear Taleb and his The Black Swan, after the more classical "Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data", here is the history of the Bayesian statistics. If you do not know about Bayes, let me just add that I like the beautiful and symmetric formula: [According to wikipedia] For proposition A and evidence B, P(A|B) P(B) = P(B|A) P(A) with P(A), the prior, is the initial degree of bel ...more
Feb 09, 2012 Darrenglass rated it really liked it
A friend recently pointed out that the term 'Bayesian' is now entering the common parlance such that the NY Times can use it in an article without explanation. This would come as a huge surprise and disappointment to many statisticians from the early part of the 20th century, when Bayesian was a bad word and the theory was largely refuted. Why would a statistical theory be so upsetting, you might ask...well, McGrayne's book explains why, and gives the history of the theory over time and how it m ...more
Apr 19, 2014 Ms.pegasus rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone who has read the Nate Silver book SIGNAL AND THE NOISE
Recommended to Ms.pegasus by: citation if Nathan Silver's book
Shelves: nonfiction, history
As the subtitle proclaims, this book chronicles the history of science It also demonstrates how a simple formula evolved into a sophisticated application that required the invention of high speed computers to exploit its potential for prediction. It complements the information in Nate Silver's book, THE SIGNAL AND THE NOISE.

McGrayne introduces the reader to Bayes's Theorem with the proposal that given the unknown position of a billiard ball, its probable position can be narrowed by collecting da
Jan 05, 2016 Jacob rated it liked it
I thought I would love this book -- I'm a Bayes enthusiast who has enjoyed the power of Bayesian machine learning. It was nice to know the history of how Bayes theorem developed, how many people contributed significantly to it (Laplace and others), and how often it got buried. And as I was describing to Leslie why I wanted to read this book, I told her about how I thought Bayes was much more how people work with science naturally, i.e. they form a belief before they know how things are, do exper ...more
Dec 26, 2012 Ken rated it really liked it
I liked this book a lot more than I thought I would, particularly given its ratings. This is a non-technical history of the use of Bayesian statistics. The book is so non-technical that no background in statistics is really required at all. The non-technical nature also comes at the cost of a lack of detail. The book only explains WHY Bayesian methods were so poorly thought of for years at a very high level, without enough detail to really understand the underlying issues. In addition, its descr ...more
Rajesh Israni
Sep 02, 2013 Rajesh Israni rated it really liked it
My following review on "The Theory That would Not Die" is not just a review of the book, but also a detailed account of the actual Bayesian theory and its numerous benefits that unfortunately still remain hidden from general public. I hope that by sharing the importance of this great piece of theory it might kindle your interest to learn more and read this delightful book by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne. To understand the importance and the concept of Bayes Theorem it’s important to establish its nee ...more
Jun 28, 2011 Jeff rated it liked it
The basic idea of Bayes' Rule is that you treat probability as a degree of belief (i.e. how much are you willing to bet on something) instead of a relative frequency (i.e. count the number of royal flushes out of all possible poker hands).

Bayes' Rule allows you to "learn" by updating your (prior) degree of belief of something (i.e. probability of finding a sunken ship in a certain part of the ocean) given new information (i.e. a captain's log) in order to obtain knowledge in a "posterior" belie
Bob Stocker
Jun 23, 2014 Bob Stocker rated it liked it
Because I had read several GoodReads reviews of The Theory That Would Not Die by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, I knew that it was not an introduction to Bayesian statistics. I was still sufficiently intrigued by the subtitle How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy to take it out of the library. The book had lots of “who,” “what,” “when,” and “where,” but almost no “how.” I left with a knowledge who applied Bayes ...more
Apr 05, 2012 Andy rated it it was ok
There is some very important information here but it is buried under a giant pile of whocares?.

By giving us the life of Bayes, the childhood of Laplace , ... , I think the author is trying to force the book to have a narrative, but I doubt that many people buying books about mathematical theories are interested in the minor details of the mathematicians' lives. This type of writing would be bad enough if the importance of Bayesian analysis were clearly explained, but it isn't. For instance, in
Seth D Michaels
Nov 23, 2014 Seth D Michaels rated it really liked it
Complex and brainy, but very interesting; I think it's the best you can do at explaining what Bayes' rule is to non-specialists like me. With an admirable minimum of equations, McGrayne talks about the origin of the Bayes statistical method, the controversies around it, and its wide range of applications. I almost wish I could give it something more like 3 1/2 stars, because I feel like I should have come away from the book with a better ability to explain exactly what Bayes' rule is, rather tha ...more
Topher Fischer
Jan 28, 2016 Topher Fischer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Maybe a third of the book seemed to consist of trivial facts that related to different uses of Bayesian methods in the last 50 years. The more substantial sections were fascinating, and made up for the chore of slogging through the trivia. I loved the portions relating to cryptography, medicine, and finding lost things at sea.
Aug 17, 2011 Jane rated it liked it
Shelves: science, history
I really wanted to like this book more than I did. The first three chapters are particularly frustrating -- I got the feeling that the author knew much more than she dared to say in a popular book and figuring out exactly what Bayes and Laplace did was not easy. The rest of the book, which consists primarily of descriptions of how Bayes' Rule has been applied, is much better. In particular, the chapters on how Bayesian methods were used to crack the Enigma code and find missing submarines were i ...more
Jan 06, 2012 Dan rated it it was ok
Covers the history of Bayes' rule but there's little on actual mathematical application. The book was heavy on mathematician drama and light on data-driven aha! moments. If you are interested mainly in History of Mathematics, raise this review to 3.5 stars. But the book's subtitle is misleading: rather than "_how_ Bayes' rule cracked the Enigma code..." it should read "_that_ Bayes' rule cracked the Enigma code..." since there's little "how" to be had. An interesting piece of history, but ultima ...more
Aug 11, 2015 Thomas rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Thomas by: Ken Harrison
Shelves: history, science
I'd say this is a good example of what can go wrong with a whirlwind tour. I never got a very good handle on any of the specific problems, or even the application of Bayes' rule itself. I read this in part because I work in a field where the ability to do Bayesian statistics might be useful. Unfortunately, I'm not much closer to that. I did like the problems in the appendix (and found them helpful in understanding), but I doubt that they are very representative of modern applications.
Sep 03, 2015 Jake rated it liked it
We like to think that progress and better methods are inevitable. The constant march of progress, etc. This book is a great example, through the history of Bayes' Rule(more accurately Laplace's Rule) of exploring how wrong that thinking is. People are important in pushing ideas. That said these people were focused on too much. My first major gripe with the book is it's insistence on focusing on major players and not methods or practices. Laplace or Kolmogorov who came to Bayes' rule on their own ...more
Kristin Lieber
Mar 14, 2016 Kristin Lieber rated it it was amazing
Impressive research, an enjoyable read about the history of Bayesian statistics. However, lacks a good description about the basic question – what is Bayesian statistics. The book would benefit from a first chapter with a couple engaging examples of how Bayes works. Must be able to last through the first couple dry chapters.

Bayes helps real-life practitioners assess evidence, combine every possible form of information, and cope with the gaps and uncertainties in their knowledge. Some of Bayes’
Jun 08, 2013 Mike rated it it was amazing
Excellent and very readable book about the history of Bayes' theorem. I never realized that Bayesian statistics, one of the cornerstones of modern data science, had such a turbulent history--so turbulent that, during the cold war, being called a "bayesian" was tantamount to being called a Communist.

If you're at all interested in the history of mathematics, this is a surprisingly exciting story. I expected a rather dull and academic history; that is NOT what this book is.
Karl Geiger
Nov 10, 2015 Karl Geiger rated it really liked it
Shelves: mathematics, history
The Theory that Would Not Die presents a thoroughly researched history and exploration of the ideas behind Bayesian statistics and how its methodology and employment for decision and probability analysis evolved over the past 250 years.

The book's Parts I and II fill in biographical details about Pierre-Simon Laplace and Alan Turing that flesh out their stories in great detail. The code-breaking work at Bletchley Park started far earlier than in the movie version, for example, and Laplace's biog
Aug 04, 2014 Ben rated it liked it
It feels strange to hear Bayes' approach to statistics constantly referred to as a theorem, because as presented here it seems much more like a methodology. Essentially, a Bayesian approach is about establishing an initial assessment of likely probability and then refining it over time with additional information. There's clearly some skepticism that comes in if you can't make your initial prior estimate too informed and start with a blind guess of 50-50, but as a general approach it doesn't see ...more
John Esterly
Sep 29, 2014 John Esterly rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this book as a history of the application of Bayesian statistical analysis and theory. More than anything, it served as a 250-page must read list for future reading. This book was much less technical than it could have been, focusing more on the history of Bayesian theory, from Bayes himself and near-contemporary Laplace, through early use in the code-breaking efforts of World Wars I and II, into modern times using computer technology. McGrayne highlights the achievements and contribut ...more
Herbert Weisberg
May 29, 2014 Herbert Weisberg rated it it was ok
I imagine that Bayes must be turning over in his grave. The good reverend was a deep philosophical thinker, and this popular exposition caricatures what and why his famous rule was created. It has been said that there are many kinds of Bayesians. The book oversimpifies the situation and various points of view in many ways. In particular, it fails to distinguish Bayes's Rule as a mathematical (and quite trivial) truism and the various applications to which the Rule has been put. It is the latter ...more
Oct 14, 2015 Erneilson rated it really liked it
A fascinating history of Bayesian statistics. I was introduced to it 20 years ago and have been a fan of the Bayesian approach ever since. A fun, very geeky read.
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