non-local priors for mixtures

[For some unknown reason, this commentary on the paper by Jairo Fúquene, Mark Steel, David Rossell —all colleagues at Warwick— on choosing mixture components by non-local priors remained untouched in my draft box…]

Choosing the number of components in a mixture of (e.g., Gaussian) distributions is a hard problem. It may actually be an altogether impossible problem, even when abstaining from moral judgements on mixtures. I do realise that the components can eventually be identified as the number of observations grows to infinity, as demonstrated foFaith, Barossa Valley wine: strange name for a Shiraz (as it cannot be a mass wine!, but nice flavoursr instance by Judith Rousseau and Kerrie Mengersen (2011). But for a finite and given number of observations, how much can we trust any conclusion about the number of components?! It seems to me that the criticism about the vacuity of point null hypotheses, namely the logical absurdity of trying to differentiate θ=0 from any other value of θ, applies to the estimation or test on the number of components of a mixture. Doubly so, one might argue, since a very small or a very close component is undistinguishable from a non-existing one. For instance, Definition 2 is correct from a mathematical viewpoint, but it does not spell out the multiple contiguities between k and k’ component mixtures.

The paper starts with a comprehensive coverage of l’état de l’art… When using a Bayes factor to compare a k-component and an h-component mixture, the behaviour of the factor is quite different depending on which model is correct. Essentially overfitted mixtures take much longer to detect than underfitted ones, which makes intuitive sense. And BIC should be corrected for overfitted mixtures by a canonical dimension λ between the true and the (larger) assumed number of parameters  into

2 log m(y) = 2 log p(y|θ) – λ log O(n) + O(log log n)

I would argue that this purely invalidates BIG in mixture settings since the canonical dimension λ is unavailable (and DIC does not provide a useful substitute as we illustrated a decade ago…) The criticism about Rousseau and Mengersen (2011) over-fitted mixture that their approach shrinks less than a model averaging over several numbers of components relates to minimaxity and hence sounds both overly technical and reverting to some frequentist approach to testing. Replacing testing with estimating sounds like the right idea.  And I am also unconvinced that a faster rate of convergence of the posterior probability or of the Bayes factor is a relevant factor when conducting

As for non local priors, the notion seems to rely on a specific topology for the parameter space since a k-component mixture can approach a k’-component mixture (when k'<k) in a continuum of ways (even for a given parameterisation). This topology seems to be summarised by the penalty (distance?) d(θ) in the paper. Is there an intrinsic version of d(θ), given the weird parameter space? Like one derived from the Kullback-Leibler distance between the models? The choice of how zero is approached clearly has an impact on how easily the “null” is detected, the more because of the somewhat discontinuous nature of the parameter space. Incidentally, I find it curious that only the distance between means is penalised… The prior also assumes independence between component parameters and component weights, which I think is suboptimal in dealing with mixtures, maybe suboptimal in a poetic sense!, as we discussed in our reparameterisation paper. I am not sure either than the speed the distance converges to zero (in Theorem 1) helps me to understand whether the mixture has too many components for the data’s own good when I can run a calibration experiment under both assumptions.

While I appreciate the derivation of a closed form non-local prior, I wonder at the importance of the result. Is it because this leads to an easier derivation of the posterior probability? I do not see the connection in Section 3, except maybe that the importance weight indeed involves this normalising constant when considering several k’s in parallel. Is there any convergence issue in the importance sampling solution of (3.1) and (3.3) since the simulations are run under the local posterior? While I appreciate the availability of an EM version for deriving the MAP, a fact I became aware of only recently, is it truly bringing an improvement when compared with picking the MCMC simulation with the highest completed posterior?

The section on prior elicitation is obviously of central interest to me! It however seems to be restricted to the derivation of the scale factor g, in the distance, and of the parameter q in the Dirichlet prior on the weights. While the other parameters suffer from being allocated the conjugate-like priors. I would obviously enjoy seeing how this approach proceeds with our non-informative prior(s). In this regard, the illustration section is nice, but one always wonders at the representative nature of the examples and the possible interpretations of real datasets. For instance, when considering that the Old Faithful is more of an HMM than a mixture.

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