## how individualistic should statistics be?

**K**eli Liu and Xiao-Li Meng completed a paper on the very nature of inference, to appear in The Annual Review of Statistics and Its Application. This paper or chapter is addressing a fundamental (and foundational) question on drawing inference based a sample on a new observation. That is, in making prediction. To what extent should the characteristics of the sample used for that prediction resemble those of the future observation? In his 1921 book, *A Treatise on Probability*, Keynes thought this similarity (or individualisation) should be pushed to its extreme, which led him to somewhat conclude on the impossibility of statistics and never to return to the field again. Certainly missing the incoming possibility of comparing models and selecting variables. And not building so much on the “all models are wrong” tenet. On the contrary, classical statistics use the entire data available and the associated model to run the prediction, including Bayesian statistics, although it is less clear how to distinguish between data and control there. Liu & Meng debate about the possibility of creating controls from the data alone. Or “alone” as the model behind always plays a capital role.

“Bayes and Frequentism are two ends of the same spectrum—a spectrum defined in terms of relevance and robustness. The nominal contrast between them (…) is a red herring.”

The paper makes for an exhilarating if definitely challenging read. With a highly witty writing style. If only because the perspective is unusual, to say the least!, and requires constant mental contortions to frame the assertions into more traditional terms. For instance, I first thought that Bayesian procedures were in agreement with the ultimate conditioning approach, since it conditions on the observables and nothing else (except for the model!). Upon reflection, I am not so convinced that there is such a difference with the frequentist approach in the (specific) sense that they both take advantage of the entire dataset. Either from the predictive or from the plug-in distribution. It all boils down to how one defines “control”.

“Probability and randomness, so tightly yoked in our minds, are in fact distinct concepts (…) at the end of the day, probability is essentially a tool for bookkeeping, just like the abacus.”

Some sentences from the paper made me think of ABC, even though I am not trying to bring everything back to ABC!, as drawing controls is the nature of the ABC game. ABC draws samples or control from the prior predictive and only keeps those for which the relevant aspects (or the summary statistics) agree with those of the observed data. Which opens similar questions about the validity and precision of the resulting inference, as well as the loss of information due to the projection over the summary statistics. While ABC is not mentioned in the paper, it can be used as a benchmark to walk through it.

“In the words of Jack Kiefer, we need to distinguish those problems with `luck data’ from those with `unlucky data’.”

I liked very much recalling discussions we had with George Casella and Costas Goutis in Cornell about frequentist conditional inference, with the memory of Jack Kiefer still lingering around. However, I am not so excited about the processing of models here since, from what I understand in the paper (!), the probabilistic model behind the statistical analysis must be used to some extent in producing the control case and thus cannot be truly assessed with a critical eye. For instance, of which use is the mean square error when the model behind is unable to produce the observed data? In particular, the variability of this mean squared error is directly driven by this model. Similarly the notion of ancillaries is completely model-dependent. In the classification diagrams opposing robustness to relevance, all methods included therein are parametric. While non-parametric types of inference could provide a reference or a calibration ruler, at the very least.

Also, by continuously and maybe a wee bit heavily referring to the doctor-and-patient analogy, the paper is somewhat confusing as to which parts are analogy and which parts are methodology and to which type of statistical problem is covered by the discussion (sometimes it feels like all problems and sometimes like medical trials).

“The need to deliver individualized assessments of uncertainty are more pressing than ever.”

A final question leads us to an infinite regress: if the statistician needs to turn to individualized inference, at which level of individuality should the statistician be assessed? And who is going to provide the controls then? In any case, this challenging paper is definitely worth reading by (only mature?) statisticians to ponder about the nature of the game!

September 3, 2016 at 2:40 pm

The paper has now appeared, with reference: Annu. Rev. Stat. Appl. 2016. 3:79–111