Science, being a human activity, is not immune to fashion. For example, one of the first mathematicians to study the subject of probability theory was an English clergyman called Thomas Bayes, who was born in 1702 and died in 1761. His ideas about the prediction of future events from one or two examples were popular for a while, and have never been fundamentally challenged. But they were eventually overwhelmed by those of the “frequentist school, which developed the methods based on sampling from a large population that now dominate the field and are used to predict things as diverse as the outcomes of elections and preferences for chocolate bars. Recently, however, Bayes’s ideas have made a comeback among computer scientists trying to design software with human-like intelligence. Bayesian reasoning now lies at the heart of leading internet search engines and automated “help wizards. That has prompted some psychologists to ask if the human brain itself might be a Bayesian-reasoning machine. They suggest that the Bayesian capacity to draw strong inferences from sparse data could be crucial to the way the mind perceives the world, plans actions, comprehends and learns language, reasons from correlation to causation, and even understands the […]

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