**I**n the latest September issue of JASA I received a few days ago, I spotted a review paper by Jaewoo Park & Murali Haran on intractable normalising constants Z(θ). There have been many proposals for solving this problem as well as several surveys, some conferences and even a book. The current survey focus on MCMC solutions, from auxiliary variable approaches to likelihood approximation algorithms (albeit without ABC entries, even though the 2006 auxiliary variable solutions of Møller et al. et of Murray et al. do simulate pseudo-observations and hence…). This includes the MCMC approximations to auxiliary sampling proposed by Faming Liang and co-authors across several papers. And the paper Yves Atchadé, Nicolas Lartillot and I wrote ten years ago on an adaptive MCMC targeting Z(θ) and using stochastic approximation à la Wang-Landau. Park & Haran stress the relevance of using sufficient statistics in this approach towards fighting computational costs, which makes me wonder if an ABC version could be envisioned. The paper also includes pseudo-marginal techniques like Russian Roulette (once spelled Roullette) and noisy MCMC as proposed in Alquier et al. (2016). These methods are compared on three examples: (1) the Ising model, (2) a social network model, the Florentine business dataset used in our original paper, and a larger one where most methods prove too costly, and (3) an attraction-repulsion point process model. In conclusion, an interesting survey, taking care to spell out the calibration requirements and the theoretical validation, if of course depending on the chosen benchmarks.

## Archive for benchmark

## Bayesian inference with intractable normalizing functions

Posted in Books, Statistics with tags adaptive MCMC methods, American Statistical Association, auxiliary variable, benchmark, doubly intractable problems, importance sampling, Ising model, JASA, MCMC algorithms, noisy MCMC, normalising constant, Russian roulette on December 13, 2018 by xi'an## g-and-k [or -h] distributions

Posted in Statistics with tags ABC, ABC de Sevilla, benchmark, Dennis Prangle, g-and-k distributions, MCMC, numerical derivation, numerical integration, quantile distribution, Wasserstein distance on July 17, 2017 by xi'an**D**ennis Prangle released last week an R package called gk and an associated arXived paper for running inference on the g-and-k and g-and-h quantile distributions. As should be clear from an earlier review on Karian’s and Dudewicz’s book quantile distributions, I am not particularly fond of those distributions which construction seems very artificial to me, as mostly based on the production of a closed-form quantile function. But I agree they provide a neat benchmark for ABC methods, if nothing else. However, as recently pointed out in our Wasserstein paper with Espen Bernton, Pierre Jacob and Mathieu Gerber, and explained in a post of Pierre’s on Statisfaction, the pdf can be easily constructed by numerical means, hence allows for an MCMC resolution, which is also a point made by Dennis in his paper. Using the closed-form derivation of the Normal form of the distribution [i.e., applied to Φ(x)] so that numerical derivation is not necessary.

## the problem of assessing statistical methods

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags benchmark, boxplots, empirical cdf, Monte Carlo Statistical Methods, Pima Indians, RMSE, simulation on November 4, 2015 by xi'an**A** new arXival today by Abigail Arnold and Jason Loeppky that discusses how simulations studies are and should be conducted when assessing statistical methods.

“Obviously there is no one model that will universally outperform the rest. Recognizing the “No Free Lunch” theorem, the logical question to ask is whether one model will perform best over a given class of problems. Again, we feel that the answer to this question is of course no. But we do feel that there are certain methods that will have a better chance than other methods.”

I find the assumptions or prerequisites of the paper arguable [in the sense of **2**. *open to disagreement; not obviously correc*t]—not even mentioning the switch from models to methods in the above—in that I will not be convinced that a method outperforms another method by simply looking at a series of simulation experiments. (Which is why I find *some* machine learning papers unconvincing, when they introduce a new methodology and run it through a couple benchmarks.) This also reminds me of Samaniego’s *Comparison of the Bayesian and frequentist approaches*, which requires a secondary prior to run the comparison. (And hence is inconclusive.)

“The papers above typically show the results as a series of side-by-side boxplots (…) for each method, with one plot for each test function and sample size. Conclusions are then drawn from looking at a handful of boxplots which often look very cluttered and usually do not provide clear evidence as to the best method(s). Alternatively, the results will be summarized in a table of average performance (…) These tables are usually overwhelming to look at and interpretations are incredibly inefficient.”

Agreed boxplots are terrible (my friend Jean-Michel is forever arguing against them!). Tables are worse. But why don’t we question RMSE as well? This is most often a very reductive way of comparing methods. I also agree with the point that the design of the simulation studies is almost always overlooked and induces a false sense of precision, while failing to cover a wide enough range of cases. However, and once more, I question the prerequisites for comparing methods through simulations for the purpose of ranking those methods. (Which is not the perspective adopted by James and Nicolas when criticising the use of the Pima Indian dataset.)

“The ECDF allows for quick assessments of methods over a large array of problems to get an overall view while of course not precluding comparisons on individual functions (…) We hope that readers of this paper agree with our opinions and strongly encourage everyone to rely on the ECDF, at least as a starting point, to display relevant statistical information from simulations.”

Drawing a comparison with the benchmarking of optimisation methods, the authors suggest to rank statistical methods via the empirical cdf of their performances or accuracy *across* (benchmark) problems. Arguing that “significant benefit is gained by [this] collapsing”. I am quite sceptical [as often] of the argument, first because using a (e)cdf means the comparison is unidimensional, second because I see no reason why two cdfs should be easily comparable, third because the collapsing over several problems only operates when the errors for those different problems do not overlap.

## Leave the Pima Indians alone!

Posted in Books, R, Statistics, University life with tags ABC, Bayes factor, benchmark, Chib's approximation, CPU, diabetes, EP-ABC, expectation-propagation, Gibbs sampling, Jim Berger, logistic regression, MCMC algorithms, Monte Carlo Statistical Methods, Newton-Raphson algorithm, Pima Indians, probit model, R on July 15, 2015 by xi'an

“…our findings shall lead to us be critical of certain current practices. Specifically, most papers seem content with comparing some new algorithm with Gibbs sampling, on a few small datasets, such as the well-known Pima Indians diabetes dataset (8 covariates). But we shall see that, for such datasets, approaches that are even more basic than Gibbs sampling are actually hard to beat. In other words, datasets considered in the literature may be too toy-like to be used as a relevant benchmark. On the other hand, if ones considers larger datasets (with say 100 covariates), then not so many approaches seem to remain competitive” (p.1)

**N**icolas Chopin and James Ridgway (CREST, Paris) completed and arXived a paper they had “threatened” to publish for a while now, namely why using the Pima Indian R logistic or probit regression benchmark for checking a computational algorithm is not such a great idea! Given that I am definitely guilty of such a sin (in papers not reported in the survey), I was quite eager to read the reasons why! Beyond the debate on the worth of such a benchmark, the paper considers a wider perspective as to how Bayesian computation algorithms should be compared, including the murky waters of CPU time versus designer or programmer time. Which plays against most MCMC sampler.

As a first entry, Nicolas and James point out that the MAP can be derived by standard a Newton-Raphson algorithm when the prior is Gaussian, and even when the prior is Cauchy as it seems most datasets allow for Newton-Raphson convergence. As well as the Hessian. We actually took advantage of this property in our comparison of evidence approximations published in the Festschrift for Jim Berger. Where we also noticed the awesome performances of an importance sampler based on the Gaussian or Laplace approximation. The authors call this proposal their *gold standard*. Because they also find it hard to beat. They also pursue this approximation to its logical (?) end by proposing an evidence approximation based on the above and Chib’s formula. Two close approximations are provided by INLA for posterior marginals and by a Laplace-EM for a Cauchy prior. Unsurprisingly, the expectation-propagation (EP) approach is also implemented. What EP lacks in theoretical backup, it seems to recover in sheer precision (in the examples analysed in the paper). And unsurprisingly as well the paper includes a randomised quasi-Monte Carlo version of the Gaussian importance sampler. (The authors report that “the improvement brought by RQMC varies strongly across datasets” without elaborating for the reasons behind this variability. They also do not report the CPU time of the IS-QMC, maybe identical to the one for the regular importance sampling.) Maybe more surprising is the absence of a nested sampling version.

In the Markov chain Monte Carlo solutions, Nicolas and James compare Gibbs, Metropolis-Hastings, Hamiltonian Monte Carlo, and NUTS. Plus a tempering SMC, All of which are outperformed by importance sampling for small enough datasets. But get back to competing grounds for large enough ones, since importance sampling then fails.

“…let’s all refrain from now on from using datasets and models that are too simple to serve as a reasonable benchmark.” (p.25)

This is a very nice survey on the theme of binary data (more than on the comparison of algorithms in that the authors do not really take into account design and complexity, but resort to MSEs versus CPus). I however do not agree with their overall message to leave the Pima Indians alone. Or at least not for the reason provided therein, namely that faster and more accurate approximations methods are available and cannot be beaten. Benchmarks always have the limitation of “what you get is what you see”, i.e., the output associated with a single dataset that only has that many idiosyncrasies. Plus, the closeness to a perfect normal posterior makes the logistic posterior too regular to pause a real challenge (even though MCMC algorithms are as usual slower than iid sampling). But having faster and more precise resolutions should on the opposite be cause for cheers, as this provides a reference value, a golden standard, to check against. In a sense, for every Monte Carlo method, there is a much better answer, namely the exact value of the integral or of the optimum! And one is hardly aiming at a more precise inference for the benchmark itself: those Pima Indians [whose actual name is Akimel O’odham] with diabetes involved in the original study are definitely beyond help from statisticians and the model is unlikely to carry out to current populations. When the goal is to compare methods, as in our 2009 paper for Jim Berger’s 60th birthday, what matters is relative speed and relative ease of implementation (besides the obvious convergence to the proper target). In that sense bigger and larger is not always relevant. Unless one tackles really big or really large datasets, for which there is neither benchmark method nor reference value.