Archive for Cambridge University Press

practical Bayesian inference [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, R, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2018 by xi'an

[Disclaimer: I received this book of Coryn Bailer-Jones for a review in the International Statistical Review and intend to submit a revised version of this post as my review. As usual, book reviews on the ‘Og are reflecting my own definitely personal and highly subjective views on the topic!]

It is always a bit of a challenge to review introductory textbooks as, on the one hand, they are rarely written at the level and with the focus one would personally choose to write them. And, on the other hand, it is all too easy to find issues with the material presented and the way it is presented… So be warned and proceed cautiously! In the current case, Practical Bayesian Inference tries to embrace too much, methinks, by starting from basic probability notions (that should not be unknown to physical scientists, I believe, and which would avoid introducing a flat measure as a uniform distribution over the real line!, p.20). All the way to running MCMC for parameter estimation, to compare models by Bayesian evidence, and to cover non-parametric regression and bootstrap resampling. For instance, priors only make their apparition on page 71. With a puzzling choice of an improper prior (?) leading to an improper posterior (??), which is certainly not the smoothest entry on the topic. “Improper posteriors are a bad thing“, indeed! And using truncation to turn them into proper distributions is not a clear improvement as the truncation point will significantly impact the inference. Discussing about the choice of priors from the beginning has some appeal, but it may also create confusion in the novice reader (although one never knows!). Even asking about “what is a good prior?” (p.73) is not necessarily the best (and my recommended) approach to a proper understanding of the Bayesian paradigm. And arguing about the unicity of the prior (p.119) clashes with my own view of the prior being primarily a reference measure rather than an ideal summary of the available information. (The book argues at some point that there is no fixed model parameter, another and connected source of disagreement.) There is a section on assigning priors (p.113), but it only covers the case of a possibly biased coin without much realism. A feature common to many Bayesian textbooks though. To return to the issue of improper priors (and posteriors), the book includes several warnings about the danger of hitting an undefined posterior (still called a distribution), without providing real guidance on checking for its definition. (A tough question, to be sure.)

“One big drawback of the Metropolis algorithm is that it uses a fixed step size, the magnitude of which can hardly be determined in advance…”(p.165)

When introducing computational techniques, quadratic (or Laplace) approximation of the likelihood is mingled with kernel estimators, which does not seem appropriate. Proposing to check convergence and calibrate MCMC via ACF graphs is helpful in low dimensions, but not in larger dimensions. And while warning about the dangers of forgetting the Jacobians in the Metropolis-Hastings acceptance probability when using a transform like η=ln θ is well-taken, the loose handling of changes of variables may be more confusing than helpful (p.167). Discussing and providing two R codes for the (standard) Metropolis algorithm may prove too much. Or not. But using a four page R code for fitting a simple linear regression with a flat prior (pp.182-186) may definitely put the reader off! Even though I deem the example a proper experiment in setting a Metropolis algorithm and appreciate the detailed description around the R code itself. (I just take exception at the paragraph on running the code with two or even one observation, as the fact that “the Bayesian solution always exists” (p.188) [under a proper prior] is not necessarily convincing…)

“In the real world we cannot falsify a hypothesis or model any more than we “truthify” it (…) All we can do is ask which of the available models explains the data best.” (p.224)

In a similar format, the discussion on testing of hypotheses starts with a lengthy presentation of classical tests and p-values, the chapter ending up with a list of issues. Most of them reasonable in my own referential. I also concur with the conclusive remarks quoted above that what matters is a comparison of (all relatively false) models. What I less agree [as predictable from earlier posts and papers] with is the (standard) notion that comparing two models with a Bayes factor follows from the no information (in order to avoid the heavily loaded non-informative) prior weights of ½ and ½. Or similarly that the evidence is uniquely calibrated. Or, again, using a truncated improper prior under one of the assumptions (with the ghost of the Jeffreys-Lindley paradox lurking nearby…).  While the Savage-Dickey approximation is mentioned, the first numerical resolution of the approximation to the Bayes factor is via simulations from the priors. Which may be very poor in the situation of vague and uninformative priors. And then the deadly harmonic mean makes an entry (p.242), along with nested sampling… There is also a list of issues about Bayesian model comparison, including (strong) dependence on the prior, dependence on irrelevant alternatives, lack of goodness of fit tests, computational costs, including calls to possibly intractable likelihood function, ABC being then mentioned as a solution (which it is not, mostly).

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truth or truthiness [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 21, 2017 by xi'an

This 2016 book by Howard Wainer has been sitting (!) on my desk for quite a while and it took a long visit to Warwick to find a free spot to quickly read it and write my impressions. The subtitle is, as shown on the picture, “Distinguishing fact from fiction by learning to think like a data scientist”. With all due respect to the book, which illustrates quite pleasantly the dangers of (pseudo-)data mis- or over- (or eve under-)interpretation, and to the author, who has repeatedly emphasised those points in his books and tribunes opinion columns, including those in CHANCE, I do not think the book teaches how to think like a data scientist. In that an arbitrary neophyte reader would not manage to handle a realistic data centric situation without deeper training. But this collection of essays, some of which were tribunes, makes for a nice reading  nonetheless.

I presume that in this post-truth and alternative facts [dark] era, the notion of truthiness is familiar to most readers! It is often based on a misunderstanding or a misappropriation of data leading to dubious and unfounded conclusions. The book runs through dozens of examples (some of them quite short and mostly appealing to common sense) to show how this happens and to some extent how this can be countered. If not avoided as people will always try to bend, willingly or not, the data to their conclusion.

There are several parts and several themes in Truth or Truthiness, with different degrees of depth and novelty. The more involved part is in my opinion the one about causality, with illustrations in educational testing, psychology, and medical trials. (The illustration about fracking and the resulting impact on Oklahoma earthquakes should not be in the book, except that there exist officials publicly denying the facts. The same remark applies to the testing cheat controversy, which would be laughable had not someone ended up the victim!) The section on graphical representation and data communication is less exciting, presumably because it comes after Tufte’s books and message. I also feel the 1854 cholera map of John Snow is somewhat over-exploited, since he only drew the map after the epidemic declined.  The final chapter Don’t Try this at Home is quite anecdotal and at the same time this may the whole point, namely that in mundane questions thinking like a data scientist is feasible and leads to sometimes surprising conclusions!

“In the past a theory could get by on its beauty; in the modern world, a successful theory has to work for a living.” (p.40)

The book reads quite nicely, as a whole and a collection of pieces, from which class and talk illustrations can be borrowed. I like the “learned” tone of it, with plenty of citations and witticisms, some in Latin, Yiddish and even French. (Even though the later is somewhat inaccurate! Si ça avait pu se produire, ça avait dû se produire [p.152] would have sounded more vernacular in my Gallic opinion!) I thus enjoyed unreservedly Truth or Truthiness, for its rich style and critical message, all the more needed in the current times, and far from comparing it with a bag of potato chips as Andrew Gelman did, I would like to stress its classical tone, in the sense of being immersed in a broad and deep culture that seems to be receding fast.