Bayesian model comparison with intractable constants

abcIRichard Everitt, Adam Johansen (Warwick), Ellen Rowing and Melina Evdemon-Hogan have updated [on arXiv] a survey paper on the computation of Bayes factors in the presence of intractable normalising constants. Apparently destined for Statistics and Computing when considering the style. A great entry, in particular for those attending the CRiSM workshop Estimating Constants in a few months!

A question that came to me from reading the introduction to the paper is why a method like Møller et al.’s (2006) auxiliary variable trick should be considered more “exact” than the pseudo-marginal approach of Andrieu and Roberts (2009) since the later can equally be seen as an auxiliary variable approach. The answer was on the next page (!) as it is indeed a special case of Andrieu and Roberts (2009). Murray et al. (2006) also belongs to this group with a product-type importance sampling estimator, based on a sequence of tempered intermediaries… As noted by the authors, there is a whole spectrum of related methods in this area, some of which qualify as exact-approximate, inexact approximate and noisy versions.

Their main argument is to support importance sampling as the method of choice, including sequential Monte Carlo (SMC) for large dimensional parameters. The auxiliary variable of Møller et al.’s (2006) is then part of the importance scheme. In the first toy example, a Poisson is opposed to a Geometric distribution, as in our ABC model choice papers, for which a multiple auxiliary variable approach dominates both ABC and Simon Wood’s synthetic likelihood for a given computing cost. I did not spot which artificial choice was made for the Z(θ)’s in both models, since the constants are entirely known in those densities. A very interesting section of the paper is when envisioning biased approximations to the intractable density. If only because the importance weights are most often biased due to the renormalisation (possibly by resampling). And because the variance derivations are then intractable as well. However, due to this intractability, the paper can only approach the impact of those approximations via empirical experiments. This leads however to the interrogation on how to evaluate the validity of the approximation in settings where truth and even its magnitude are unknown… Cross-validation and bootstrap type evaluations may prove too costly in realistic problems. Using biased solutions thus mostly remains an open problem in my opinion.

The SMC part in the paper is equally interesting if only because it focuses on the data thinning idea studied by Chopin (2002) and many other papers in the recent years. This made me wonder why an alternative relying on a sequence of approximations to the target with tractable normalising constants could not be considered. A whole sequence of auxiliary variable completions sounds highly demanding in terms of computing budget and also requires a corresponding sequence of calibrations. (Now, ABC fares no better since it requires heavy simulations and repeated calibrations, while further exhibiting a damning missing link with the target density. ) Unfortunately, embarking upon a theoretical exploration of the properties of approximate SMC is quite difficult, as shown by the strong assumptions made in the paper to bound the total variation distance to the true target.

One Response to “Bayesian model comparison with intractable constants”

  1. Thanks for the nice writeup! I have also blogged about this paper http://goo.gl/XwlTAe. Regarding the use of distributions in the SMC that do not have intractable normalising constants, this is something I’m currently experimenting with. Hopefully I will present some of this in Marseille next month.

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