A Historian Reviews Carrier: “The Bayesian perspective on historiography is commonsensical”

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by Neil Godfrey

Aviezer Tucker

Thanks to a reader who has alerted me to an article by a philosopher of history, Aviezer Tucker, on Richard Carrier’s Proving History in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal History and Theory. I have since seen an rss feed alerting me to Carrier’s own comments on the review. I look forward to reading it but meantime I’d like to remind readers of a post I did a few years ago on the author:

Real Historians Do Bayes!

I also see that Tucker’s review has been made open access. (The journal’s policy is to make a work open access if the author or their supporting institution pays a fee of $3000. So do appreciate the access you have to this article. It’s free to you but the publisher is not giving it away free.)

The Reverend Bayes vs Jesus Christ.

See also Carrier’s comments. No doubt I’ll write something once I have had a chance to read it, too.


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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “A Historian Reviews Carrier: “The Bayesian perspective on historiography is commonsensical””

  1. If you get the time, Neil, you should read the book Superforecasers by Philip Tetlock.

    The superforecasters are a numerate bunch: many know about Bayes’ theorem and could deploy it if they felt it was worth the trouble. But they rarely crunch the numbers so explicitly. What matters far more to the superforecasters than Bayes’ theorem is Bayes’ core insight of gradually getting closer to the truth by constantly updating in proportion to the weight of the evidence. [my emphasis] That’s true of Tim Minto [the top superforecaster]. He knows Bayes’ theorem, but he didn’t use it even once to make his hundreds of updated forecasts. And yet Minto appreciates the Bayesian spirit. “I think it is likely that I have a better intuitive grasp of Bayes’ theorem than most people,” he said, “even though if you asked me to write it down from memory I’d probably fail.” Minto is a Bayesian who does not use Bayes’ theorem. That paradoxical description applies to most superforecasters.

    As this quote points out, Bayesianism isn’t about using Bayes Theorem, but more about thinking of your state of knowledge in terms of probability and updating that state according to the rules of probability.

    The only unfortunate thing about this is that the title may prime people to think that Bayesianism is only about predicting the future and thus might not have any relevance to other types of knowledge (e.g, history).

    You can read a short article about Superforecasters at Washington Post.

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