Archive for all models are wrong

Error and Inference [#4]

Posted in Books, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2011 by xi'an

(This is the fourth post on Error and Inference, again and again yet being a raw and naïve reaction following a linear and slow reading of the book, rather than a deeper and more informed criticism.)

‘The defining feature of an inductive inference is that the premises (evidence statements) can be true while the conclusion inferred may be false without a logical contradiction: the conclusion is “evidence transcending”.”—D. Mayo and D. Cox, p.249, Error and Inference, 2010

The seventh chapter of Error and Inference, entitled “New perspectives on (some old) problems of frequentist statistics“, is divided in four parts, written by David Cox, Deborah Mayo and Aris Spanos, in different orders and groups of authors. This is certainly the most statistical of all chapters, not a surprise when considering that David Cox is involved, and I thus have difficulties to explain why it took me so long to read through it…. Overall, this chapter is quite important by its contribution to the debate on the nature of statistical testing.

‘The advantage in the modern statistical framework is that the probabilities arise from defining a probability model to represent the phenomenon of interest. Had Popper made use of the statistical testing ideas being developed at around the same time, he might have been able to substantiate his account of falsification.”—D. Mayo and D. Cox, p.251, Error and Inference, 2010

The first part of the chapter is Mayo’s and Cox’ “Frequentist statistics as a theory of inductive inference“. It was first published in the 2006 Erich Lehmann symposium. And available on line as an arXiv paper. There is absolutely no attempt there to link of clash with the Bayesian approach, this paper is only looking at frequentist statistical theory as the basis for inductive inference. The debate therein about deducing that H is correct from a dataset successfully facing a statistical test is classical (in both senses) but I [unsurprisingly] remain unconvinced by the arguments. The null hypothesis remains the calibrating distribution throughout the chapter, with very little (or at least not enough) consideration of what happens when the null hypothesis does not hold.  Section 3.6 about confidence intervals being another facet of testing hypotheses is representative of this perspective. The p-value is defended as the central tool for conducting hypothesis assessment. (In this version of the paper, some p’s are written in roman characters and others in italics, which is a wee confusing until one realises that this is a mere typo!)  The fundamental imbalance problem, namely that, in contiguous hypotheses, a test cannot be expected both to most often reject the null when it is [very moderately] false and to most often accept the null when it is right is not discussed there. The argument about substantive nulls in Section 3.5 considers a stylised case of well-separated scientific theories, however the real world of models is more similar to a greyish  (and more Popperian?) continuum of possibles. In connection with this, I would have thought more likely that the book would address on philosophical grounds Box’s aphorism that “all models are wrong”. Indeed, one (philosophical?) difficulty with the p-values and the frequentist evidence principle (FEV) is that they rely on the strong belief that one given model can be exact or true (while criticising the subjectivity of the prior modelling in the Bayesian approach). Even in the typology of types of null hypotheses drawn by the authors in Section 3, the “possibility of model misspecification” is addressed in terms of the low power of an omnibus test, while agreeing that “an incomplete probability specification” is unavoidable (an argument found at several place in the book that the alternative cannot be completely specified).

‘Sometimes we can find evidence for H0, understood as an assertion that a particular discrepancy, flaw, or error is absent, and we can do this by means of tests that, with high probability, would have reported a discrepancy had one been present.”—D. Mayo and D. Cox, p.255, Error and Inference, 2010

The above quote relates to the Failure and Confirmation section where the authors try to push the argument in favour of frequentist tests one step further, namely that that “moderate p-values” may sometimes be used as confirmation of the null. (I may have misunderstood, the end of the section defending a purely frequentist, as in repeated experiments, interpretation. This reproduces an earlier argument about the nature of probability in Section 1.2, as characterising the “stability of relative frequencies of results of repeated trials”) In fact, this chapter and other recent readings made me think afresh about the nature of probability, a debate that put me off so much in Keynes (1921) and even in Jeffreys (1939). From a mathematical perspective, there is only one “kind” of probability, the one defined via a reference measure and a probability, whether it applies to observations or to parameters. From a philosophical perspective, there is a natural issue about the “truth” or “realism” of the probability quantities and of the probabilistic statements. The book and in particular the chapter consider that a truthful probability statement is the one agreeing with “a hypothetical long-run of repeated sampling, an error probability”, while the statistical inference school of Keynes (1921), Jeffreys (1939), and Carnap (1962) “involves quantifying a degree of support or confirmation in claims or hypotheses”, which makes this (Bayesian) sound as less realistic… Obviously, I have no ambition to solve this long-going debate, however I see no reason in the first approach to be more realistic by being grounded on stable relative frequencies à la von Mises. If nothing else, the notion that a test should be evaluated on its long run performances is very idealistic as the concept relies on an ever-repeating, an infinite sequence of identical trials. Relying on probability measures as self-coherent mathematical measures of uncertainty carries (for me) as much (or as less) reality as the above infinite experiment. Now, the paper is not completely entrenched in this interpretation, when it concludes that “what makes the kind of hypothetical reasoning relevant to the case at hand is not the long-run low error rates associated with using the tool (or test) in this manner; it is rather what those error rates reveal about the data generating source or phenomenon” (p.273).

‘If the data are so extensive that accordance with the null hypothesis implies the absence of an effect of practical importance, and a reasonably high p-value is achieved, then it may be taken as evidence of the absence of an effect of practical importance.”—D. Mayo and D. Cox, p.263, Error and Inference, 2010

The paper mentions several times conclusions to be drawn from a p-value near one, as in the above quote. This is an interpretation that does not sit well with my understanding of p-values being distributed as uniforms under the null: very high  p-values should be as suspicious as very low p-values. (This criticism is not new, of course.) Unless one does not strictly adhere to the null model, which brings back the above issue of the approximativeness of any model… I also found fascinating to read the criticism that “power appertains to a prespecified rejection region, not to the specific data under analysis” as I thought this equally applied to the p-values, turning “the specific data under analysis” into a departure event of a prespecified kind.

(Given the unreasonable length of the above, I fear I will continue my snailpaced reading in yet another post!)

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