Using MCMC output to efficiently estimate Bayes factors

As I was checking for software to answer a query on X validated about generic Bayes factor derivation, I came across an R software called BayesFactor, which only applies in regression settings and relies on the Savage-Dickey representation of the Bayes factor


when the null hypothesis writes as θ=θ⁰ (and possibly additional nuisance parameters with [roughly speaking] an independent prior). As we discussed in our paper with Jean-Michel Marin [which got ignored by large!], this representation of the Bayes factor is based on picking a very specific version of the prior, or more exactly of three prior densities. Assuming such versions are selected, I wonder at the performances of this approximation, given that it involves approximating the marginal posterior at θ⁰….

“To ensure that the Bayes factor we compute using the Savage–Dickey ratio is the the ratio of marginal densities that we intend, the condition (…) is easily met by models which specify priors in which the nuisance parameters are independent of the parameters of interest.” Morey et al. (2011)

First, when reading Morey at al. (2011), I realised (a wee bit late!) that Chib’s method is nothing but a version of the Savage-Dickey representation when the marginal posterior can be estimated in a parametric (Rao-Blackwellised) way. However, outside hierarchical models based on conjugate priors such parametric approximations are intractable and non-parametric versions must be invoked instead, which necessarily degrades the quality of the method. A degradation that escalates with the dimension of the parameter θ. In addition, I am somewhat perplexed by the use of a Rao-Blackwell argument in the setting of the Dickey-Savage representation. Indeed this representation assumes that

\pi_1(\psi|\theta_0)=\pi_0(\psi) \  \ \text{or}\quad \pi_1(\theta_0,\psi)=\pi_1(\theta_0)\pi_0(\psi)

which means that [the specific version of] the conditional density of θ⁰ given ψ should not depend on the nuisance parameter. But relying on a Rao-Blackwellisation leads to estimate the marginal posterior via full conditionals. Of course, θ given ψ and y may depend on ψ, but still… Morey at al. (2011) advocate the recourse to Chib’s formula as optimal but this obviously requires the full conditional to be available. They acknowledge this point as moot, since it is sufficient from their perspective to specify a conjugate prior. They consider this to be a slight modification of the model (p.377). However, I see the evaluation of an estimated density at a single (I repeat, single!) point as being the direst part of the method as it is clearly more sensitive to approximations that the evaluation of a whole integral, since the later incorporates an averaging effect by definition. Hence, even if this method was truly available for all models, I would be uncertain of its worth when compared with other methods, except the harmonic mean estimator of course!

On the side, Morey at al. (2011) study a simple one-sample t test where they use an improper prior on the nuisance parameter σ, under both models. While the Savage-Dickey representation is correct in this special case, I fail to see why the identity would apply in every case under an improper prior. In particular, independence does not make sense with improper priors. The authors also indicate the possible use of this Bayes factor approximation for encompassing models. At first, I thought this could be most useful in our testing by mixture framework where we define an encompassing model as a mixture. However, I quickly realised that using a Beta Be(a,a) prior on the weight α with a<1 leads to an infinite density value at both zero and one, hence cannot be compatible with a Savage-Dickey representation of the Bayes factor.

One Response to “Using MCMC output to efficiently estimate Bayes factors”

  1. It’s worth noting that the BayesFactor software itself does not use the Savage-Dickey identity anywhere to compute Bayes factors. It uses a simple Monte Carlo integration, importance sampling, and/or quadrature (with various methods of choosing between them). Most of the parameters, in fact, are analytically integrated out first, which is possible due to the conjugate framework we use.

    Regarding independence and improper priors, I agree that independence is not the right way to think about it (since these aren’t proper probability distributions). The key is the desired transformation invariance of the inference, not independence.

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