Archive for causality

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.


Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 7, 2016 by xi'an

Oxford University Press sent me this book by Phyllis Illari and Frederica Russo, Causality (Philosophical theory meets scientific practice) a little while ago. (The book appeared in 2014.) Unless I asked for it, I cannot remember…

“The problem is whether and how to use information of general causation established in science to ascertain individual responsibility.” (p.38)

As the subtitle indicates, this is a philosophy book, not a statistics book. And not particularly intended for statisticians. Hence, I am not exactly qualified to analyse its contents, and even less to criticise its lack of connection with statistics. But this being a blog post…  I read rather slowly through the book, which exposes a wide range (“a map”, p.8) of approaches and perspectives on the notions of causality, some ways to infer about causality, and the point of doing all this, concluding with a relativistic (and thus eminently philosophical) viewpoint defending a “pluralistic mosaic” or a “causal mosaic” that relates to all existing accounts of causality as they “each do something valuable” (p.258). From a naïve bystander perspective, this sounds like a new avatar of deconstructionism applied to causality.

“Simulations can be very illuminating about various phenomena that are complex and have unexpected effects (…) can be run repeatedly to study a system in different situations to those seen for the real system…” (p.15)

This is not to state that the book is uninteresting, as it provides a wide entry into philosophical attempts at categorising and defining causality, if not into the statistical aspects of the issue. (For instance, the problem whether or not causality can be proven uniquely from a statistical perspective is not mentioned.) Among those interesting points in the early chapters, a section (2.5) about simulation. Which however misses the depth of this earlier book on climate simulations I reviewed while in Monash. Or of the discussions at the interdisciplinary seminar last year in Hanover. I.J. Good’s probabilistic causality is mentioned but hardly detailed. (With the warning remark that one “should not confuse predictability with determinism [and] determinism with causality”, p.82.) Continue reading

from statistical evidence to evidence of causality

Posted in Books, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 24, 2013 by xi'an

I took the opportunity of having to wait at a local administration a long while today (!) to read an arXived paper by Dawid, Musio and Fienberg on the−both philosophical and practical−difficulty to establish the probabilities of the causes of effects. The first interesting thing about the paper is that it relates to the Médiator drug scandal that took place in France in the past year and still is under trial: thanks to the investigations of a local doctor, Irène Frachon, the drug was exposed as an aggravating factor for heart disease. Or maybe the cause. The case-control study of Frachon summarises into a 2×2 table with a corrected odds ratio of 17.1. From there, the authors expose the difficulties of drawing inference about causes of effects, i.e. causality, an aspect of inference that has always puzzled me. (And the paper led me to search for the distinction between odds ratio and risk ratio.)

“And the conceptual and implementational difficulties that we discuss below, that beset even the simplest case of inference about causes of effects, will be hugely magnified when we wish to take additional account of such policy considerations.”

A third interesting notion in the paper is the inclusion of counterfactuals. My introduction to counterfactuals dates back to a run in the back-country roads around Ithaca, New York, when George told me about a discussion paper from Phil he was editing for JASA on that notion with his philosopher neighbour Steven Schwartz as a discussant. (It was a great run, presumably in the late Spring. And the best introduction I could dream of!) Now, the paper starts from the counterfactual perspective to conclude that inference is close to impossible in this setting. Within my limited understanding, I would see that as a drawback of using counterfactuals, rather than of drawing inference about causes. If the corresponding statistical model is nonindentifiable, because one of the two responses is always missing, the model seems inappropriate. I am also surprised at the notion of “sufficiency” used in the paper, since it sounds like the background information cancels the need to account for the treatment (e.g., aspirin) decision.  The fourth point is the derivation of bounds on the probabilities of causation, despite everything! Quite an interesting read thus!

Bayesian introductions at IXXI

Posted in Mountains, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , on October 28, 2013 by xi'an

Ten days ago I did a lighting-fast visit to Grenoble for a quick introduction to Bayesian notions during a Bayesian day organised by Michael Blum. It was supported by IXXI, Rhône Alpes Complex Systems Institute, a light structure that favors interdisciplinary research to model complex sytems such as biological or social systems, technological networks… This was an opportunity to recycle my Budapest overview from Bayes 250th to Bayes 2.5.0. (As I have changed my email signature initial from X to IX, I further enjoyed the name IXXI!) More seriously, I appreciated (despite the too short time spent there!) the mix of perspectives and disciplines represented in this introduction, from Bayesian networks and causality in computer science and medical expert systems, to neurosciences and the Bayesian theory of mind, to Bayesian population genetics. And hence the mix of audiences. The part about neurosciences and social representations on others’ mind reminded me of the discussion with Pierre Bessières we had a year ago on France Culture. Again, I am quite sorry and apologetic for having missed part of the day and opportunities for discussions, simply because of a tight schedule this week…

10 Little’s simple ideas

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , on July 17, 2013 by xi'an

“I still feel that too much of academic statistics values complex mathematics over elegant simplicity — it is necessary for a research paper to be complicated in order to be published.” Roderick Little, JASA, p.359

Roderick Little wrote his Fisher lecture, recently published in JASA, around ten simple ideas for statistics. Its title is “In praise of simplicity not mathematistry! Ten simple powerful ideas for the statistical scientist”. While this title is rather antagonistic, blaming mathematical statistics for the rise of mathematistry in the field (a term borrowed from Fisher, who also invented the adjective ‘Bayesian’), the paper focus on those 10 ideas and very little on why there is (would be) too much mathematics in statistics:

  1. Make outcomes univariate
  2. Bayes rule, for inference under an assumed model
  3. Calibrated Bayes, to keep inference honest
  4. Embrace well-designed simulation experiments
  5. Distinguish the model/estimand, the principles of estimation, and computational methods
  6. Parsimony — seek a good simple model, not the “right” model
  7. Model the Inclusion/Assignment and try to make it ignorable
  8. Consider dropping parts of the likelihood to reduce the modeling part
  9. Potential outcomes and principal stratification for causal inferenc
  10. Statistics is basically a missing data problem

“The mathematics of problems with infinite parameters is interesting, but with finite sample sizes, I would rather have a parametric model. “Mathematistry” may eschew parametric models because the asymptotic theory is too simple, but they often work well in practice.” Roderick Little, JASA, p.365

Both those rules and the illustrations that abund in the paper are reflecting upon Little’s research focus and obviously apply to his model in a fairly coherent way. However, while a mostly parametric model user myself, I fear the rejection of non-parametric techniques is far too radical. It is more and more my convinction that we cannot handle the full complexity of a realistic structure in a standard Bayesian manner and that we have to give up on the coherence and completeness goals at some point… Using non-parametrics and/or machine learning on some bits and pieces then makes sense, even though it hurts elegance and simplicity.

“However, fully Bayes inference requires detailed probability modeling, which is often a daunting task. It seems worth sacrifycing some Bayesian inferential purity if the task can be simplified.” Roderick Little, JASA, p.366

I will not discuss those ideas in detail, as some of them make complete sense to me (like Bayesian statistics laying its assumptions in the open) and others remain obscure (e.g., causality) or with limited applicability. It is overall a commendable Fisher lecture that focus on methodology and the practice of statistical science, rather than on theory. I however do not see the reason why maths should be blamed for this state of the field. Nor why mathematical statistics journals like AoS would carry some responsibility in the lack of further applicability in other fields.  Students of statistics do need a strong background in mathematics and I fear we are losing ground in this respect, at least judging by the growing difficulty in finding measure theory courses abroad for our exchange undergradutes from Paris-Dauphine. (I also find the model misspecification aspects mostly missing from this list.)

epidemiology in Le Monde

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2012 by xi'an

Quite an interesting weekend Le Monde issue: a fourth (2 pages!) of the science folder is devoted to epidemiology… In the statistical sense. (The subtitle is actually Strengths and limitations of Statistics.) The paper does not delve into technical statistical issues but points out the logical divergence between a case-by-case study and an epidemiological study. The impression that the higher the conditioning (i.e. the more covariates), the better the explanation is a statistical fallacy some of the opponents interviewed in the paper do not grasp. (Which reminded me of Keynes seemingly going the same way.) The short paragraph written on causality and Hill’s criteria is vague enough to concur to the overall remark that causality can never been proved or disproved… The fourth examples illustrating the strengths and limitations are tobacco vs. lung cancer, a clear case except for R.A. Fisher!, mobile phones vs. brain tumors, a not yet conclusive setting, hepatitis B vaccine vs. sclerosis, lacking data (the pre-2006 records were destroyed for legal reasons), and leukemia vs. nuclear plants, with a significant [?!] correlation between the number of cases and the distance to a nuclear plant. (The paper was inspired by a report recently published by the French Académie de Médecine on epidemiology in France.) The science folder also includes a review of a recent Science paper by Wilhite and Fong on the coercive strategies used by some journals/editors to increase their impact factor, e.g., “you cite Leukemia [once in 42 references]. Consequently, we kindly ask you to add references of articles published in Leukemia to your present article”.

Principles of Applied Statistics

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2012 by xi'an

This book by David Cox and Christl Donnelly, Principles of Applied Statistics, is an extensive coverage of all the necessary steps and precautions one must go through when contemplating applied (i.e. real!) statistics. As the authors write in the very first sentence of the book, “applied statistics is more than data analysis” (p.i); the title could indeed have been “Principled Data Analysis”! Indeed, Principles of Applied Statistics reminded me of how much we (at least I) take “the model” and “the data” for granted when doing statistical analyses, by going through all the pre-data and post-data steps that lead to the “idealized” (p.188) data analysis. The contents of the book are intentionally simple, with hardly any mathematical aspect, but with a clinical attention to exhaustivity and clarity. For instance, even though I would have enjoyed more stress on probabilistic models as the basis for statistical inference, they only appear in the fourth chapter (out of ten) with error in variable models. The painstakingly careful coverage of the myriad of tiny but essential steps involved in a statistical analysis and the highlight of the numerous corresponding pitfalls was certainly illuminating to me.  Just as the book refrains from mathematical digressions (“our emphasis is on the subject-matter, not on the statistical techniques as such p.12), it falls short from engaging into detail and complex data stories. Instead, it uses little grey boxes to convey the pertinent aspects of a given data analysis, referring to a paper for the full story. (I acknowledge this may be frustrating at times, as one would like to read more…) The book reads very nicely and smoothly, and I must acknowledge I read most of it in trains, métros, and planes over the past week. (This remark is not  intended as a criticism against a lack of depth or interest, by all means [and medians]!)

A general principle, sounding superficial but difficult to implement, is that analyses should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.” (p.9)

To get into more details, Principles of Applied Statistics covers the (most!) purposes of statistical analyses (Chap. 1), design with some special emphasis (Chap. 2-3), which is not surprising given the record of the authors (and “not a moribund art form”, p.51), measurement (Chap. 4), including the special case of latent variables and their role in model formulation, preliminary analysis (Chap. 5) by which the authors mean data screening and graphical pre-analysis, [at last!] models (Chap. 6-7), separated in model formulation [debating the nature of probability] and model choice, the later being  somehow separated from the standard meaning of the term (done in §8.4.5 and §8.4.6), formal [mathematical] inference (Chap. 8), covering in particular testing and multiple testing, interpretation (Chap. 9), i.e. post-processing, and a final epilogue (Chap. 10). The readership of the book is rather broad, from practitioners to students, although both categories do require a good dose of maturity, to teachers, to scientists designing experiments with a statistical mind. It may be deemed too philosophical by some, too allusive by others, but I think it constitutes a magnificent testimony to the depth and to the spectrum of our field.

Of course, all choices are to some extent provisional.“(p.130)

As a personal aside,  I appreciated the illustration through capture-recapture models (p.36) with a remark of the impact of toe-clipping on frogs, as it reminded me of a similar way of marking lizards when my (then) student Jérôme Dupuis was working on a corresponding capture-recapture dataset in the 90’s. On the opposite, while John Snow‘s story [of using maps to explain the cause of cholera] is alluring, and his map makes for a great cover, I am less convinced it is particularly relevant within this book.

The word Bayesian, however, became more widely used, sometimes representing a regression to the older usage of flat prior distributions supposedly representing initial ignorance, sometimes meaning models in which the parameters of interest are regarded as random variables and occasionaly meaning little more than that the laws of probability are somewhere invoked.” (p.144)

My main quibble with the book goes, most unsurprisingly!, with the processing of Bayesian analysis found in Principles of Applied Statistics (pp.143-144). Indeed, on the one hand, the method is mostly criticised over those two pages. On the other hand, it is the only method presented with this level of details, including historical background, which seems a bit superfluous for a treatise on applied statistics. The drawbacks mentioned are (p.144)

  • the weight of prior information or modelling as “evidence”;
  • the impact of “indifference or ignorance or reference priors”;
  • whether or not empirical Bayes modelling has been used to construct the prior;
  • whether or not the Bayesian approach is anything more than a “computationally convenient way of obtaining confidence intervals”

The empirical Bayes perspective is the original one found in Robbins (1956) and seems to find grace in the authors’ eyes (“the most satisfactory formulation”, p.156). Contrary to MCMC methods, “a black box in that typically it is unclear which features of the data are driving the conclusions” (p.149)…

If an issue can be addressed nonparametrically then it will often be better to tackle it parametrically; however, if it cannot be resolved nonparametrically then it is usually dangerous to resolve it parametrically.” (p.96)

Apart from a more philosophical paragraph on the distinction between machine learning and statistical analysis in the final chapter, with the drawback of using neural nets and such as black-box methods (p.185), there is relatively little coverage of non-parametric models, the choice of “parametric formulations” (p.96) being openly chosen. I can somehow understand this perspective for simpler settings, namely that nonparametric models offer little explanation of the production of the data. However, in more complex models, nonparametric components often are a convenient way to evacuate burdensome nuisance parameters…. Again, technical aspects are not the focus of Principles of Applied Statistics so this also explains why it does not dwell intently on nonparametric models.

A test of meaningfulness of a possible model for a data-generating process is whether it can be used directly to simulate data.” (p.104)

The above remark is quite interesting, especially when accounting for David Cox’ current appreciation of ABC techniques. The impossibility to generate from a posited model as some found in econometrics precludes using ABC, but this does not necessarily mean the model should be excluded as unrealistic…

The overriding general principle is that there should be a seamless flow between statistical and subject-matter considerations.” (p.188)

As mentioned earlier, the last chapter brings a philosophical conclusion on what is (applied) statistics. It is stresses the need for a careful and principled use of black-box methods so that they preserve a general framework and lead to explicit interpretations.