I'm trying to wrap my brain about computations in bayesian stats. The concept of multiplying a prior by a likelihood is a bit confusing to me, especially in a continuous case.

As an example, suppose I believe that heights of men in the US are truly distributed as ~N(mu=5.5,sigma=1). And my prior belief is that they are distributed as ~N(mu=5,sigma=1).

Using a pdf function, I can compute the likelihood of seeing each observation given the parameter as follows (python code):

First, samples from the true distribution.

import numpy as np
## loc = mu, scale = sigma, sample size = size
heights = np.random.normal(loc=5.5,scale=1,size=1000) 

Then the likelihood

def pdf(data, mean=5, variance=1):
    den = (np.sqrt(2*np.pi*variance))
    num = np.exp(-(np.square(data - mean)/(2*variance)))
    return num/den

likelihoods = [pdf(obs) for obs in heights]

Let's look at the first 10 heights and their likelihoods:

[(5.426044952743029, 0.36432983407060887),
 (5.7354234636458585, 0.30441530694083374),
 (2.6187512313984795, 0.02342125390815794),
 (4.048376000047023, 0.25366706186458265),
 (5.654522163377861, 0.3220211139284403),
 (5.051880755747615, 0.3984057424429508),
 (6.038515919083698, 0.2326555628191281),
 (6.220977020106613, 0.1893172736081514),
 (4.557736652986651, 0.3617734950544695),
 (5.601408005492896, 0.33294288249916787)]

Now...I'm confused on how I multiply this finite set of likelihoods with a continuous prior distribution. What actually is happening?

  • $\begingroup$ A prior specifies prior knowledge before seeing the data. Here, you state a prior (fine), but you also claim that you now have a different belief that is also the true data-generating distribution. That's not realistic: you never know the true distribution, even though you approach it the more you observe data (if your estimator is asymptotically unbiased). $\endgroup$
    – bomzh
    Jun 25, 2020 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ Also, Bayesian inference is supposed to give you the probability of a parameter (in your case, the mean) and the prior is a statement about the distribution of that parameter. For instance you could say that the prior is over the mean, and it has a distribution centered around 5 and a variance of 1. $\endgroup$
    – bomzh
    Jun 25, 2020 at 20:16
  • $\begingroup$ @bomzh, Ah! Pretend you didn't read the first line of code. Assume the data is "real" and we sampled it from a legitimate source. (I generated it synthetically to form a practice problem.) Does that help clarify what the scope of the question? I'd still like to know how to multiply my likelihood by the prior. $\endgroup$
    – jbuddy_13
    Jun 25, 2020 at 20:24

2 Answers 2


Perhaps the multiplication of 'prior' by 'likelihood' to obtain 'posterior' will be clearer if we make a careful comparison of (a) a familiar elementary application of Bayes' Theorem for a finite partition with (b) the use of a continuous version of Bayes' Theorem for inference on a parameter.

Bayes' Theorem with a finite partition. Let's begin with a Bayesian problem based on a finite partition. Your factory makes widgets and has $K$ machines: $A_1, A_2, \dots, A_K.$ Every widget is made by exactly one of these machines, so the $K$ machines can be viewed as a finite partition.

(a) The machines run at various speeds. The $j$th machine makes the (prior) proportion $P(A_j)$ of widgets, $j = 1,2,\dots K,$ where $\sum_j P(A_j)=1.$

(b) Machines are of varying quality. The likelihood of a defective widget from machine $A_i,$ is $P(D|A_i).$

(c) If we observe that a widget randomly chosen from the warehouse is defective, then the (posterior) probability that widget was made by machine $A_j$ is $$P(A_j | D) = P(A_jD)/P(D) = P(A_j)P(D|A_j)/C$$ where $C = P(D) = \sum_i P(A_iD) = \sum_i P(A_i)P(D|A_i).$

We can say that the expression on the right in the displayed equation is the product of the prior probabilities and likelihood, divided by a constant. Here the likelihood is based on data, the observation that the widget from the warehouse is defective. Thus, suppressing the constant, we could say that the posterior distribution is proportional to the product of the prior distribution and the likelihood, and write $P(A_i|D) \propto P(A_i) \times P(D|A_i).$

However, in discrete Bayesian applications, it is unusual to suppress the constant---because it is an easily computed sum and because it is needed to get numerical results.

Continuous Bayesian situation. Suppose you want to get an interval estimate of a binomial Success probability $\theta,$ where $0 < \theta < 1.$

(a) You have a prior distribution on $\theta,$ which is viewed as a random variable. Say that the density function $$f(\theta) = \frac{\Gamma(330+270)}{\Gamma(330)\Gamma(270)}\theta^{330-1}(1-\theta)^{270-1},$$ for $0 < \theta < 1,$ is that of $\mathsf{Beta}(330, 270).$ We use a beta prior distribution because it has support $(0,1)$ and we choose this particular beta distribution because it puts 95% of its probability in the interval $(0.51, 0.59),$ which matches our prior opinion that $\theta$ is slightly above $1/2.$ (Other similar beta distributions might have been chosen, but this one seems about right.) In R:

[1] 0.9513758

(b) Then we do an experiment (perhaps, take a poll or test for prevalence of a disease), in which we observe $x = 620$ 'Successes' within $n = 1000$ trials. So the binomial likelihood function is based on a binomial PDF viewed as a function of $\theta,$ denoted $$g(x|\theta) = {1000 \choose 620}\theta^{620}(1-\theta)^{n-620}.$$

(c) The 'continuous' version of Bayes' Theorem can be stated as follows: $$h(\theta|x) = \frac{f(\theta)g(x|\theta)}{\int f(\theta)g(x|\theta)\, d\theta} = \frac{f(\theta)g(x|\theta)}{C} \propto f(\theta) \times g(x|\theta).$$

This is often summarized as $\mathrm{POSTERIOR}\propto \mathrm{PRIOR}\times\mathrm{LIKELIHOOD}.$ (The symbol $\propto$ is read as "proportional to".)

In the current particular application, we can avoid evaluating the integral $C$ because the beta prior distribution is 'conjugate to' (mathematically compatible with) the binomial likelihood. This makes it possible to recognize the right hand side of the last displayed equation as $$h(\theta|x) = f(\theta)g(x|\theta) \propto \theta^{330+620-1}(1-\theta)^{270-(1000-620)-1}\\ = \theta^{950-1}(1-\theta)^{650-1},$$ which is proportional to the density function of $\mathsf{Beta}(950,650).$ Of course, the integral can be evaluated by analytic or computational means, but it is convenient when we don't need to evaluate the constant $C.$

Finally, we can say that a 95% Bayesian posterior probability interval (also called 'credible interval') is $(0.570, 0.618).$ Specific endpoints of this interval are influenced both by the prior distribution and (somewhat more strongly) by the data from our experiment.

qbeta(c(.025,.975), 950,650)
[1] 0.5695848 0.6176932

If we had used the 'non-informative' Jeffreys' prior $\mathsf{Beta}(.5,.5),$ then the 95% posterior interval estimate from our experiment would have been $(0.590, 0.650).$

qbeta(c(.025,.975), 620.5, 380.5)
[1] 0.5896044 0.6497021
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ This is a great answer, but you have to be careful when there's overlapping information between the prior and the likelihood, which happens when you make certain distributional assumptions for example. $\endgroup$
    – Neil G
    Jun 25, 2020 at 22:21
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @ NeilG: I'm aware of some (wouldn't ever claim all!) of the difficulties with Bayesian inference. Tried to keep the example as simple and clean as possible. (No peeking at preliminary polling results before stating the prior.) $\endgroup$
    – BruceET
    Jun 25, 2020 at 23:11
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, fair enough. I remember being very confused when I first tried to do this pointwise product of densities with the general form of exponential families. "But why isn't the product in the same exponential family anymore?" Hopefully, I've drawn the right conclusion. If not someone will correct me soon enough :) $\endgroup$
    – Neil G
    Jun 25, 2020 at 23:13
  • $\begingroup$ Might be worthwhile to post your own Q&A where the difficulty you mention and how it leads to a wrong answer are are on optimal display. $\endgroup$
    – BruceET
    Jun 25, 2020 at 23:22
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, but I thought it fit here? After all, in your answer you talk about the beta distribution (which is over probabilities in [0, 1]). If instead, you had arbitrarily chosen the beta prime distribution (which is over odds ratios in [0, $\infty$)), then you would have run into this problem of double counting. It seems to me to be sheer luck that we live in a world that prefers probabilities to odds ratios. $\endgroup$
    – Neil G
    Jun 25, 2020 at 23:26

Bruce's answer is correct if—and only if—the prior and the likelihood contain no overlapping information. When that is true, Bayesian evidence combination is done by pointwise product of densities in the continuous case, the pointwise product of masses in the discrete case, etc. This is called product of experts by Geoff Hinton.

However, there can often be overlapping information. For example, it's very common to do Bayesian evidence combination with exponential families. The carrier measure encodes prior information about the parametrization of the support. It would be wrong to use product of experts with exponential families that have nonzero carrier measure since that will double-count the carrier measure. And anyway, the product of experts of a such distribution family may not even be within the exponential family. Luckily, Bayesian evidence combination without double-counting the carrier measure is equivalent to adding natural parameters.

In general, the posterior is proportional the prior times the likelihood divided by the overlapping information.

  • $\begingroup$ No objections to this. But not clear to me how it helps OP understand multiplication of prior and likelihood. It is a precaution that could be stated in connection with almost any attempt to do Bayesian inference. $\endgroup$
    – BruceET
    Jun 25, 2020 at 23:16
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @BruceET You're right, of course. It's something that confused me, and something I would like to have been warned about. It's also a common oversight, for example, in Hinton's description of product of experts. As for helping the OP understand why it is what it is, you already wrote an excellent answer about that. $\endgroup$
    – Neil G
    Jun 25, 2020 at 23:19

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