## estimating a constant

Posted in Books, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 3, 2012 by xi'an

Paulo (a.k.a., Zen) posted a comment in StackExchange on Larry Wasserman‘s paradox about Bayesians and likelihoodists (or likelihood-wallahs, to quote Basu!) being unable to solve the problem of estimating the normalising constant c of the sample density, f, known up to a constant

$f(x) = c g(x)$

(Example 11.10, page 188, of All of Statistics)

My own comment is that, with all due respect to Larry!, I do not see much appeal in this example, esp. as a potential criticism of Bayesians and likelihood-wallahs…. The constant c is known, being equal to

$1/\int_\mathcal{X} g(x)\text{d}x$

If c is the only “unknown” in the picture, given a sample x1,…,xn, then there is no statistical issue whatsoever about the “problem” and I do not agree with the postulate that there exist estimators of c. Nor priors on c (other than the Dirac mass on the above value). This is not in the least a statistical problem but rather a numerical issue.That the sample x1,…,xn can be (re)used through a (frequentist) density estimate to provide a numerical approximation of c

$\hat c = \hat f(x_0) \big/ g(x_0)$

is a mere curiosity. Not a criticism of alternative statistical approaches: e.g., I could also use a Bayesian density estimate…

Furthermore, the estimate provided by the sample x1,…,xn is not of particular interest since its precision is imposed by the sample size n (and converging at non-parametric rates, which is not a particularly relevant issue!), while I could use importance sampling (or even numerical integration) if I was truly interested in c. I however find the discussion interesting for many reasons

1. it somehow relates to the infamous harmonic mean estimator issue, often discussed on the’Og!;
2. it brings more light on the paradoxical differences between statistics and Monte Carlo methods, in that statistics is usually constrained by the sample while Monte Carlo methods have more freedom in generating samples (up to some budget limits). It does not make sense to speak of estimators in Monte Carlo methods because there is no parameter in the picture, only “unknown” constants. Both fields rely on samples and probability theory, and share many features, but there is nothing like a “best unbiased estimator” in Monte Carlo integration, see the case of the “optimal importance function” leading to a zero variance;
3. in connection with the previous point, the fascinating Bernoulli factory problem is not a statistical problem because it requires an infinite sequence of Bernoullis to operate;
4. the discussion induced Chris Sims to contribute to StackExchange!

## structure and uncertainty, Bristol, Sept. 26

Posted in Books, pictures, R, Running, Statistics, Travel, University life, Wines with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2012 by xi'an

Another day full of interesting and challenging—in the sense they generated new questions for me—talks at the SuSTain workshop. After another (dry and fast) run around the Downs; Leo Held started the talks with one of my favourite topics, namely the theory of g-priors in generalized linear models. He did bring a new perspective on the subject, introducing the notion of a testing Bayes factor based on the residual statistic produced by a classical (maximum likelihood) analysis, connected with earlier works of Vale Johnson. While I did not truly get the motivation for switching from the original data to this less informative quantity, I find this perspective opening new questions for dealing with settings where the true data is replaced with one or several classical statistics. With possible strong connections to ABC, of course. Incidentally, Leo managed to produce a napkin with Peter Green’s intro to MCMC dating back from their first meeting in 1994: a feat I certainly could not reproduce (as I also met both Peter and Leo for the first time in 1994, at CIRM)… Then Richard Everit presented his recent JCGS paper on Bayesian inference on latent Markov random fields, centred on the issue that simulating the latent MRF involves an MCMC step that is not exact (as in our earlier ABC paper for Ising models with Aude Grelaud). I already discussed this paper in an earlier blog and the only additional question that comes to my mind is whether or not a comparison with the auxiliary variable approach of Møller et al. (2006) would make sense.

In the intermission, I had a great conversation with Oliver Ratman on his talk of yesterday on the surprising feature that some models produce as “data” some sample from a pseudo-posterior.. Opening once again new vistas! The following talks were more on the mathematical side, with James Cussens focussing on the use of integer programming for Bayesian variable selections, then Éric Moulines presenting a recent work with a PhD student of his on PAC-Bayesian bounds and the superiority of combining experts. Including a CRAN package. Éric concluded his talk with the funny occurence of Peter’s photograph on Éric’s Microsoft Research Profile own page, due to Éric posting our joint photograph at the top of Pic du Midi d’Ossau in 2005… (He concluded with a picture of the mountain that was the exact symmetry of mine yesterday!)

The afternoon was equally superb with Gareth Roberts covering fifteen years of scaling MCMC algorithms, from the mythical 0.234 figure to the optimal temperature decrease in simulated annealing, John Kent playing the outlier with an EM algorithm—however including a formal prior distribution and raising the challenge as to why Bayesians never had to constrain the posterior expectation, which prompted me to infer that (a) the prior distribution should include all constraints and (b) the posterior expectation was not the “right” tool in non-convex parameters spaces—. Natalia Bochkina presented a recent work, joint with Peter Green, on connecting image analysis with Bayesian asymptotics, reminding me of my early attempts at reading Ibragimov and Has’minskii in the 1990’s. Then a second work with Vladimir Spoikoini on Bayesian asymptotics with misspecified models, introducing a new notion of effective dimension. The last talk of the day was by Nils Hjort about his coming book on “Credibility, confidence and likelihood“—not yet advertised by CUP—which sounds like an attempt at resuscitating Fisher by deriving distributions in the parameter space from frequentist confidence intervals. I already discussed this notion in an earlier blog, so I am fairly skeptical about it, but the talk was representative of Nils’ highly entertaining and though-provoking style! Esp. as he sprinkled the talk with examples where MLE (and some default Bayes estimators) did not work. And reanalysed one of Chris Sims‘ example presented during his Nobel Prize talk…