ACDC versus ABC

At the Bayes, Fiducial and Frequentist workshop last month, I discussed with the authors of this newly arXived paper, Approximate confidence distribution computing, Suzanne Thornton and Min-ge Xie. Which they abbreviate as ACC and not as ACDC. While I have discussed the notion of confidence distribution in some earlier posts, this paper aims at producing proper frequentist coverage within a likelihood-free setting. Given the proximity with our recent paper on the asymptotics of ABC, as well as with Li and Fearnhead (2016) parallel endeavour, it is difficult (for me) to spot the actual distinction between ACC and ABC given that we also achieve (asymptotically) proper coverage when the limiting ABC distribution is Gaussian, which is the case for a tolerance decreasing quickly enough to zero (in the sample size).

“Inference from the ABC posterior will always be difficult to justify within a Bayesian framework.”

Indeed the ACC setting is eerily similar to ABC apart from the potential of the generating distribution to be data dependent. (Which is fine when considering that the confidence distributions have no Bayesian motivation but are a tool to ensure proper frequentist coverage.) That it is “able to offer theoretical support for ABC” (p.5) is unclear to me, given both this data dependence and the constraints it imposes on the [sampling and algorithmic] setting. Similarly, I do not understand how the authors “are not committing the error of doubly using the data” (p.5) and why they should be concerned about it, standing outside the Bayesian framework. If the prior involves the data as in the Cauchy location example, it literally uses the data [once], followed by an ABC comparison between simulated and actual data, that uses the data [a second time].

“Rather than engaging in a pursuit to define a moving target such as [a range of posterior distributions], ACC maintains a consistently clear frequentist interpretation (…) and thereby offers a consistently cohesive interpretation of likelihood-free methods.”

The frequentist coverage guarantee comes from a bootstrap-like assumption that [with tolerance equal to zero] the distribution of the ABC/ACC/ACDC random parameter around an estimate of the parameter given the summary statistic is identical to the [frequentist] distribution of this estimate around the true parameter [given the true parameter, although this conditioning makes no sense outside a Bayesian framework]. (There must be a typo in the paper when the authors define [p.10] the estimator as minimising the derivative of the density of the summary statistic, while still calling it an MLE.) That this bootstrap-like assumption holds is established (in Theorem 1) under a CLT on this MLE and assumptions on the data-dependent proposal that connect it to the density of the summary statistic. Connection that seem to imply a data-dependence as well as a certain knowledge about this density. What I find most surprising in this derivation is the total absence of conditions or even discussion on the tolerance level which, as we have shown, is paramount to the validation or invalidation of ABC inference. It sounds like the authors of Approximate confidence distribution computing are setting ε equal to zero for those theoretical derivations. While in practice they apply rules [for choosing ε] they do not voice out, but which result in very different acceptance rates for the ACC version they oppose to an ABC version. (In all illustrations, it seems that ε=0.1, which does not make much sense.) All in all, I am thus rather skeptical about the practical implications of the paper in that it seems to achieve confidence guarantees by first assuming proper if implicit choices of summary statistics and parameter generating distribution.

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