## 19 dubious ways to compute the marginal likelihood

**A** recent arXival on nineteen different [and not necessarily dubious!] ways to approximate the marginal likelihood of a given topology of a philogeny tree that reminded me of our San Antonio survey with Jean-Michel Marin. This includes a version of the Laplace approximation called Laplus (!), accounting for the fact that branch lengths on the tree are positive but may have a MAP at zero. Using a Beta, Gamma, or log-Normal distribution instead of a Normal. For importance sampling, the proposals are derived from either the Laplus (!) approximate distributions or from the variational Bayes solution (based on an Normal product). Harmonic means are still used here despite the obvious danger, along with a defensive version that mixes prior and posterior. Naïve Monte Carlo means simulating from the prior, while bridge sampling seems to use samples from prior and posterior distributions. Path and modified path sampling versions are those proposed in 2008 by Nial Friel and Tony Pettitt (QUT). Stepping stone sampling appears like another version of path sampling, also based on a telescopic product of ratios of normalising constants, the generalised version relying on a normalising reference distribution that need be calibrated. CPO and PPD in the above table are two versions based on posterior predictive density estimates.

When running the comparison between so many contenders, the ground truth is selected as the values returned by MrBayes in a massive MCMC experiment amounting to 7.5 billions generations. For five different datasets. The above picture describes mean square errors for the probabilities of split, over ten replicates [when meaningful], the worst case being naïve Monte Carlo, with nested sampling and harmonic mean solutions close by. Similar assessments proceed from a comparison of Kullback-Leibler divergences. With the (predicatble?) note that “the methods do a better job approximating the marginal likelihood of more probable trees than less probable trees”. And massive variability for the poorest methods:

The comparison above does not account for time and since some methods are deterministic (and fast) there is little to do about this. The stepping steps solutions are very costly, while on the middle range bridge sampling outdoes path sampling. The assessment of nested sampling found in the conclusion is that it “would appear to be an unwise choice for estimating the marginal likelihoods of topologies, as it produces poor approximate posteriors” (p.12). Concluding at the Gamma Laplus approximation being the winner across all categories! (There is no ABC solution studied in this paper as the model likelihood can be computed in this setup, contrary to our own setting.)

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