A referee of our paper on approximating evidence for mixture model with Jeong Eun Lee pointed out the recent paper by Carlos Rodríguez and Stephen Walker on label switching in Bayesian mixture models: deterministic relabelling strategies. Which appeared this year in JCGS and went beyond, below or above my radar.
Label switching is an issue with mixture estimation (and other latent variable models) because mixture models are ill-posed models where part of the parameter is not identifiable. Indeed, the density of a mixture being a sum of terms
the parameter (vector) of the ω’s and of the θ’s is at best identifiable up to an arbitrary permutation of the components of the above sum. In other words, “component #1 of the mixture” is not a meaningful concept. And hence cannot be estimated.
This problem has been known for quite a while, much prior to EM and MCMC algorithms for mixtures, but it is only since mixtures have become truly estimable by Bayesian approaches that the debate has grown on this issue. In the very early days, Jean Diebolt and I proposed ordering the components in a unique way to give them a meaning. For instant, “component #1″ would then be the component with the smallest mean or the smallest weight and so on… Later, in one of my favourite X papers, with Gilles Celeux and Merrilee Hurn, we exposed the convergence issues related with the non-identifiability of mixture models, namely that the posterior distributions were almost always multimodal, with a multiple of k! symmetric modes in the case of exchangeable priors, and therefore that Markov chains would have trouble to visit all those modes in a symmetric manner, despite the symmetry being guaranteed from the shape of the posterior. And we conclude with the slightly provocative statement that hardly any Markov chain inferring about mixture models had ever converged! In parallel, time-wise, Matthew Stephens had completed a thesis at Oxford on the same topic and proposed solutions for relabelling MCMC simulations in order to identify a single mode and hence produce meaningful estimators. Giving another meaning to the notion of “component #1″.
And then the topic began to attract more and more researchers, being both simple to describe and frustrating in its lack of definitive answer, both from simulation and inference perspectives. Rodriguez’s and Walker’s paper provides a survey on the label switching strategies in the Bayesian processing of mixtures, but its innovative part is in deriving a relabelling strategy. Which consists of finding the optimal permutation (at each iteration of the Markov chain) by minimising a loss function inspired from k-means clustering. Which is connected with both Stephens’ and our [JASA, 2000] loss functions. The performances of this new version are shown to be roughly comparable with those of other relabelling strategies, in the case of Gaussian mixtures. (Making me wonder if the choice of the loss function is not favourable to Gaussian mixtures.) And somehow faster than Stephens’ Kullback-Leibler loss approach.
“Hence, in an MCMC algorithm, the indices of the parameters can permute multiple times between iterations. As a result, we cannot identify the hidden groups that make [all] ergodic averages to estimate characteristics of the components useless.”
One section of the paper puzzles me, albeit it does not impact the methodology and the conclusions. In Section 2.1 (p.27), the authors consider the quantity
which is the marginal probability of allocating observation i to cluster or component j. Under an exchangeable prior, this quantity is uniformly equal to 1/k for all observations i and all components j, by virtue of the invariance under permutation of the indices… So at best this can serve as a control variate. Later in Section 2.2 (p.28), the above sentence does signal a problem with those averages but it seem to attribute it to MCMC behaviour rather than to the invariance of the posterior (or to the non-identifiability of the components per se). At last, the paper mentions that “given the allocations, the likelihood is invariant under permutations of the parameters and the allocations” (p.28), which is not correct, since eqn. (8)
does not hold when the two permutations σ and τ give different images of zi…