the [not so infamous] arithmetic mean estimator

“Unfortunately, no perfect solution exists.” Anna Pajor

Another paper about harmonic and not-so-harmonic mean estimators that I (also) missed came out last year in Bayesian Analysis. The author is Anna Pajor, whose earlier note with Osiewalski I also spotted on the same day. The idea behind the approach [which belongs to the branch of Monte Carlo methods requiring additional simulations after an MCMC run] is to start as the corrected harmonic mean estimator on a restricted set A as to avoid tails of the distributions and the connected infinite variance issues that plague the harmonic mean estimator (an old ‘Og tune!). The marginal density p(y) then satisfies an identity involving the prior expectation of the likelihood function restricted to A divided by the posterior coverage of A. Which makes the resulting estimator unbiased only when this posterior coverage of A is known, which does not seem realist or efficient, except if A is an HPD region, as suggested in our earlier “safe” harmonic mean paper. And efficient only when A is well-chosen in terms of the likelihood function. In practice, the author notes that P(A|y) is to be estimated from the MCMC sequence and that the set A should be chosen to return large values of the likelihood, p(y|θ), through importance sampling, hence missing somehow the double opportunity of using an HPD region. Hence using the same default choice as in Lenk (2009), an HPD region which lower bound is derived as the minimum likelihood in the MCMC sample, “range of the posterior sampler output”. Meaning P(A|y)=1. (As an aside, the paper does not produce optimality properties or even heuristics towards efficiently choosing the various parameters to be calibrated in the algorithm, like the set A itself. As another aside, the paper concludes with a simulation study on an AR(p) model where the marginal may be obtained in closed form if stationarity is not imposed, which I first balked at, before realising that even in this setting both the posterior and the marginal do exist for a finite sample size, and hence the later can be estimated consistently by Monte Carlo methods.) A last remark is that computing costs are not discussed in the comparison of methods.

The final experiment in the paper is aiming at the marginal of a mixture model posterior, operating on the galaxy benchmark used by Roeder (1990) and about every other paper on mixtures since then (incl. ours). The prior is pseudo-conjugate, as in Chib (1995). And label-switching is handled by a random permutation of indices at each iteration. Which may not be enough to fight the attraction of the current mode on a Gibbs sampler and hence does not automatically correct Chib’s solution. As shown in Table 7 by the divergence with Radford Neal’s (1999) computations of the marginals, which happen to be quite close to the approximation proposed by the author. (As an aside, the paper mentions poor performances of Chib’s method when centred at the posterior mean, but this is a setting where the posterior mean is meaningless because of the permutation invariance. As another, I do not understand how the RMSE can be computed in this real data situation.) The comparison is limited to Chib’s method and a few versions of arithmetic and harmonic means. Missing nested sampling (Skilling, 2006; Chopin and X, 2011), and attuned importance sampling as in Berkoff et al. (2003), Marin, Mengersen and X (2005), and the most recent Lee and X (2016) in Bayesian Analysis.

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