the curious incident of the inverse of the mean

A s I figured out while working with astronomer colleagues last week, a strange if understandable difficulty proceeds from the simplest and most studied statistical model, namely the Normal model


Indeed, if one reparametrises this model as x~N(υ⁻¹,1) with υ>0, a single observation x brings very little information about υ! (This is not a toy problem as it corresponds to estimating distances from observations of parallaxes.) If x gets large, υ is very likely to be small, but if x is small or negative, υ is certainly large, with no power to discriminate between highly different values. For instance, Fisher’s information for this model and parametrisation is υ⁻² and thus collapses at zero.

While one can always hope for Bayesian miracles, they do not automatically occur. For instance, working with a Gamma prior Ga(3,10³) on υ [as informed by a large astronomy dataset] leads to a posterior expectation hardly impacted by the value of the observation x:

invormAnd using an alternative estimate like the harmonic posterior mean that is associated with the relative squared error loss does not see much more impact from the observation:

invarmThere is simply not enough information contained in one datapoint (or even several datapoints for all that matters) to infer about υ.

2 Responses to “the curious incident of the inverse of the mean”

  1. […] on X validated about the numerical approximation of the marginal likelihood, I suggested using an harmonic mean estimate as a simple but worthless solution based on an MCMC posterior sample. This was on a toy example […]

  2. Dan Simpson Says:

    Bayesian miracles never occur. Or, to put it differently (and biblically), faith without works is dead.

    That parameterisation (and parameterisations like it) only occur when you don’t consider how a single data point adds information to the inference.

    It’s a good lesson to learn (and a very nice example!), but not a surprise.

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