How proper are Bayesian models in the astronomical literature?

Hyungsuk Tak, Sujit K. Ghosh, Justin A. Ellis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


The well-known Bayes theorem assumes that a posterior distribution is a probability distribution. However, the posterior distribution may no longer be a probability distribution if an improper prior distribution (non-probability measure) such as an unbounded uniform prior is used. Improper priors are often used in the astronomical literature to reflect a lack of prior knowledge, but checking whether the resulting posterior is a probability distribution is sometimes neglected. It turns out that 23 out of 75 articles (30.7 per cent) published online in two renowned astronomy journals (ApJ and MNRAS) between 2017 Jan 1 and Oct 15 make use of Bayesian analyses without rigorously establishing posterior propriety. A disturbing aspect is that a Gibbs-type Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) method can produce a seemingly reasonable posterior sample even when the posterior is not a probability distribution (Hobert & Casella 1996). In such cases, researchers may erroneously make probabilistic inferences without noticing that the MCMC sample is from a non-existing probability distribution. We review why checking posterior propriety is fundamental in Bayesian analyses, and discuss how to set up scientifically motivated proper priors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)277-285
Number of pages9
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - Nov 21 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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