Archive for CHANCE

Statistical rethinking [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, R, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2016 by xi'an

Statistical Rethinking: A Bayesian Course with Examples in R and Stan is a new book by Richard McElreath that CRC Press sent me for review in CHANCE. While the book was already discussed on Andrew’s blog three months ago, and [rightly so!] enthusiastically recommended by Rasmus Bååth on Amazon, here are the reasons why I am quite impressed by Statistical Rethinking!

“Make no mistake: you will wreck Prague eventually.” (p.10)

While the book has a lot in common with Bayesian Data Analysis, from being in the same CRC series to adopting a pragmatic and weakly informative approach to Bayesian analysis, to supporting the use of STAN, it also nicely develops its own ecosystem and idiosyncrasies, with a noticeable Jaynesian bent. To start with, I like the highly personal style with clear attempts to make the concepts memorable for students by resorting to external concepts. The best example is the call to the myth of the golem in the first chapter, which McElreath uses as an warning for the use of statistical models (which almost are anagrams to golems!). Golems and models [and robots, another concept invented in Prague!] are man-made devices that strive to accomplish the goal set to them without heeding the consequences of their actions. This first chapter of Statistical Rethinking is setting the ground for the rest of the book and gets quite philosophical (albeit in a readable way!) as a result. In particular, there is a most coherent call against hypothesis testing, which by itself justifies the title of the book. Continue reading

expectation-propagation from Les Houches

Posted in Books, Mountains, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2016 by xi'an

ridge6As CHANCE book editor, I received the other day from Oxford University Press acts from an École de Physique des Houches on Statistical Physics, Optimisation, Inference, and Message-Passing Algorithms that took place there in September 30 – October 11, 2013.  While it is mostly unrelated with Statistics, and since Igor Caron already reviewed the book a year and more ago, I skimmed through the few chapters connected to my interest, from Devavrat Shah’s chapter on graphical models and belief propagation, to Andrea Montanari‘s denoising and sparse regression, including LASSO, and only read in some detail Manfred Opper’s expectation propagation chapter. This paper made me realise (or re-realise as I had presumably forgotten an earlier explanation!) that expectation propagation can be seen as a sort of variational approximation that produces by a sequence of iterations the distribution within a certain parametric (exponential) family that is the closest to the distribution of interest. By writing the Kullback-Leibler divergence the opposite way from the usual variational approximation, the solution equates the expectation of the natural sufficient statistic under both models… Another interesting aspect of this chapter is the connection with estimating normalising constants. (I noticed a slight typo on p.269 in the final form of the Kullback approximation q() to p().

Mathematical underpinnings of Analytics (theory and applications)

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2015 by xi'an

“Today, a week or two spent reading Jaynes’ book can be a life-changing experience.” (p.8)

I received this book by Peter Grindrod, Mathematical underpinnings of Analytics (theory and applications), from Oxford University Press, quite a while ago. (Not that long ago since the book got published in 2015.) As a book for review for CHANCE. And let it sit on my desk and in my travel bag for the same while as it was unclear to me that it was connected with Statistics and CHANCE. What is [are?!] analytics?! I did not find much of a definition of analytics when I at last opened the book, and even less mentions of statistics or machine-learning, but Wikipedia told me the following:

“Analytics is a multidimensional discipline. There is extensive use of mathematics and statistics, the use of descriptive techniques and predictive models to gain valuable knowledge from data—data analysis. The insights from data are used to recommend action or to guide decision making rooted in business context. Thus, analytics is not so much concerned with individual analyses or analysis steps, but with the entire methodology.”

Barring the absurdity of speaking of a “multidimensional discipline” [and even worse of linking with the mathematical notion of dimension!], this tells me analytics is a mix of data analysis and decision making. Hence relying on (some) statistics. Fine.

“Perhaps in ten years, time, the mathematics of behavioural analytics will be common place: every mathematics department will be doing some of it.”(p.10)

First, and to start with some positive words (!), a book that quotes both Friedrich Nietzsche and Patti Smith cannot get everything wrong! (Of course, including a most likely apocryphal quote from the now late Yogi Berra does not partake from this category!) Second, from a general perspective, I feel the book meanders its way through chapters towards a higher level of statistical consciousness, from graphs to clustering, to hidden Markov models, without precisely mentioning statistics or statistical model, while insisting very much upon Bayesian procedures and Bayesian thinking. Overall, I can relate to most items mentioned in Peter Grindrod’s book, but mostly by first reconstructing the notions behind. While I personally appreciate the distanced and often ironic tone of the book, reflecting upon the author’s experience in retail modelling, I am thus wondering at which audience Mathematical underpinnings of Analytics aims, for a practitioner would have a hard time jumping the gap between the concepts exposed therein and one’s practice, while a theoretician would require more formal and deeper entries on the topics broached by the book. I just doubt this entry will be enough to lead maths departments to adopt behavioural analytics as part of their curriculum… Continue reading

Measuring statistical evidence using relative belief [book review]

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2015 by xi'an

“It is necessary to be vigilant to ensure that attempts to be mathematically general do not lead us to introduce absurdities into discussions of inference.” (p.8)

This new book by Michael Evans (Toronto) summarises his views on statistical evidence (expanded in a large number of papers), which are a quite unique mix of Bayesian  principles and less-Bayesian methodologies. I am quite glad I could receive a version of the book before it was published by CRC Press, thanks to Rob Carver (and Keith O’Rourke for warning me about it). [Warning: this is a rather long review and post, so readers may chose to opt out now!]

“The Bayes factor does not behave appropriately as a measure of belief, but it does behave appropriately as a measure of evidence.” (p.87)

Continue reading

Bayesian inference for partially identified models [book review]

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 9, 2015 by xi'an

“The crux of the situation is that we lack theoretical insight into even quite basic questions about what is going on. More particularly, we cannot sayy anything about the limiting posterior marginal distribution of α compared to the prior marginal distribution of α.” (p.142)

Bayesian inference for partially identified models is a recent CRC Press book by Paul Gustafson that I received for a review in CHANCE with keen interest! If only because the concept of unidentifiability has always puzzled me. And that I have never fully understood what I felt was a sort of joker card that a Bayesian model was the easy solution to the problem since the prior was compensating for the components of the parameter not identified by the data. As defended by Dennis Lindley that “unidentifiability causes no real difficulties in the Bayesian approach”. However, after reading the book, I am less excited in that I do not feel it answers this type of questions about non-identifiable models and that it is exclusively centred on the [undoubtedly long-term and multifaceted] research of the author on the topic.

“Without Bayes, the feeling is that all the data can do is locate the identification region, without conveying any sense that some values in the region are more plausible than others.” (p.47)

Overall, the book is pleasant to read, with a light and witty style. The notational conventions are somewhat unconventional but well explained, to distinguish θ from θ* from θ. The format of the chapters is quite similar with a definition of the partially identified model, an exhibition of the transparent reparameterisation, the computation of the limiting posterior distribution [of the non-identified part], a demonstration [which it took me several iterations as the English exhibition rather than the French proof, pardon my French!]. Chapter titles suffer from an excess of the “further” denomination… The models themselves are mostly of one kind, namely binary observables and non-observables leading to partially observed multinomials with some non-identifiable probabilities. As in missing-at-random models (Chapter 3). In my opinion, it is only in the final chapters that the important questions are spelled-out, not always faced with a definitive answer. In essence, I did not get from the book (i) a characterisation of the non-identifiable parts of a model, of the  identifiability of unidentifiability, and of the universality of the transparent reparameterisation, (ii) a tool to assess the impact of a particular prior and possibly to set it aside, and (iii) a limitation to the amount of unidentifiability still allowing for coherent inference. Hence, when closing the book, I still remain in the dark (or at least in the grey) on how to handle partially identified models. The author convincingly argues that there is no special advantage to using a misspecified if identifiable model to a partially identified model, for this imbues false confidence (p.162), however we also need the toolbox to verify this is indeed the case.

“Given the data we can turn the Bayesian computational crank nonetheless and see what comes out.” (p.xix)

“It is this author’s contention that computation with partially identified models is a “bottleneck” issue.” (p.141)

Bayesian inference for partially identified models is particularly concerned about computational issues and rightly so. It is however unclear to me (without more time to invest investigating the topic) why the “use of general-purpose software is limited to the [original] parametrisation” (p.24) and why importance sampling would do better than MCMC on a general basis. I would definitely have liked more details on this aspect. There is a computational considerations section at the end of the book, but it remains too allusive for my taste. My naïve intuition would be that the lack of identifiability leads to flatter posterior and hence to easier MCMC moves, but Paul Gustafson reports instead bad mixing from standard MCMC schemes (like WinBUGS).

In conclusion, the book opens a new perspective on the relevance of partially identifiable models, trying to lift the stigma associated with them, and calls for further theory and methodology to deal with those. Here are the author’s final points (p.162):

  • “Identification is nuanced. Its absence does not preclude a parameter being well estimated, not its presence guarantee a parameter can be well estimated.”
  • “If we really took limitations of study designs and data quality seriously, then partially identifiable models would crop up all the time in a variety of scientific fields.”
  • “Making modeling assumptions for the sole purpose of gaining full identification can be a mug’s game (…)”
  • “If we accept partial identifiability, then consequently we need to regard sample size differently. There are profound implications of posterior variance tending to a positive limit as the sample size grows.”

These points may be challenging enough to undertake to read Bayesian inference for partially identified models in order to make one’s mind about their eventual relevance in statistical modelling.

[Disclaimer about potential self-plagiarism: this post will also be published as a book review in my CHANCE column. ]

The synoptic problem and statistics [book review]

Posted in Books, R, Statistics, University life, Wines with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 20, 2015 by xi'an

A book that came to me for review in CHANCE and that came completely unannounced is Andris Abakuks’ The Synoptic Problem and Statistics.  “Unannounced” in that I had not heard so far of the synoptic problem. This problem is one of ordering and connecting the gospels in the New Testament, more precisely the “synoptic” gospels attributed to Mark, Matthew and Luke, since the fourth canonical gospel of John is considered by experts to be posterior to those three. By considering overlaps between those texts, some statistical inference can be conducted and the book covers (some of?) those statistical analyses for different orderings of ancestry in authorship. My overall reaction after a quick perusal of the book over breakfast (sharing bread and fish, of course!) was to wonder why there was no mention made of a more global if potentially impossible approach via a phylogeny tree considering the three (or more) gospels as current observations and tracing their unknown ancestry back just as in population genetics. Not because ABC could then be brought into the picture. Rather because it sounds to me (and to my complete lack of expertise in this field!) more realistic to postulate that those gospels were not written by a single person. Or at a single period in time. But rather that they evolve like genetic mutations across copies and transmission until they got a sort of official status.

“Given the notorious intractability of the synoptic problem and the number of different models that are still being advocated, none of them without its deficiencies in explaining the relationships between the synoptic gospels, it should not be surprising that we are unable to come up with more definitive conclusions.” (p.181)

The book by Abakuks goes instead through several modelling directions, from logistic regression using variable length Markov chains [to predict agreement between two of the three texts by regressing on earlier agreement] to hidden Markov models [representing, e.g., Matthew’s use of Mark], to various independence tests on contingency tables, sometimes bringing into the model an extra source denoted by Q. Including some R code for hidden Markov models. Once again, from my outsider viewpoint, this fragmented approach to the problem sounds problematic and inconclusive. And rather verbose in extensive discussions of descriptive statistics. Not that I was expecting a sudden Monty Python-like ray of light and booming voice to disclose the truth! Or that I crave for more p-values (some may be found hiding within the book). But I still wonder about the phylogeny… Especially since phylogenies are used in text authentication as pointed out to me by Robin Ryder for Chauncer’s Canterbury Tales.

Statistics done wrong [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2015 by xi'an

no starch press (!) sent me the pdf version of this incoming book, Statistics done wrong, by Alex Reinhart, towards writing a book review for CHANCE, and I read it over two flights, one from Montpellier to Paris last week, and from Paris to B’ham this morning. The book is due to appear on March 16. It expands on a still existing website developed by Reinhart. (Discussed a year or so away on Andrew’s blog, most in comments, witness Andrew’s comment below.) Reinhart who is, incidentally or not, is a PhD candidate in statistics at Carnegie Mellon University. After apparently a rather consequent undergraduate foray into physics. Quite an unusual level of maturity and perspective for a PhD student..!

“It’s hard for me to evaluate because I am so close to the material. But on first glance it looks pretty reasonable to me.” A. Gelman

Overall, I found myself enjoying reading the book, even though I found the overall picture of the infinitely many mis-uses of statistics rather grim and a recipe for despairing of ever setting things straight..! Somehow, this is an anti-textbook, in that it warns about many ways of applying the right statistical technique in the wrong setting, without ever describing those statistical techniques. Actually without using a single maths equation. Which should be a reason good enough for me to let all hell break loose on that book! But, no, not really, I felt no compunction about agreeing with Reinhart’s warning and if you have reading Andrew’s blog for a while you should feel the same…

“Then again for a symptom like spontaneous human combustion you might get excited about any improvement.” A. Reinhart (p.13)

Maybe the limitation in the exercise is that statistics appears so much fraught with dangers of over-interpretation and false positive and that everyone (except physicists!) is bound to make such invalidated leaps in conclusion, willingly or not, that it sounds like the statistical side of Gödel’s impossibility theorem! Further, the book moves from recommendation at the individual level, i.e., on how one should conduct an experiment and separate data for hypothesis building from data for hypothesis testing, to a universal criticism of the poor standards of scientific publishing and the unavailability of most datasets and codes. Hence calling for universal reproducibility protocols that reminded of the directions explored in this recent book I reviewed on that topic. (The one the rogue bird did not like.) It may be missing on the bright side of things, for instance the wonderful possibility to use statistical models to produce simulated datasets that allow for an evaluation of the performances of a given procedure in the ideal setting. Which would have helped the increasingly depressed reader in finding ways of checking how wrongs things could get..! But also on the dark side, as it does not say much about the fact that a statistical model is most presumably wrong. (Maybe a physicist’s idiosyncrasy!) There is a chapter entitled Model Abuse, but all it does is criticise stepwise regression and somehow botches the description of Simpson’s paradox.

“You can likely get good advice in exchange for some chocolates or a beer or perhaps coauthorship on your next paper.” A. Reinhart (p.127)

The final pages are however quite redeeming in that they acknowledge that scientists from other fields cannot afford a solid enough training in statistics and hence should hire statisticians as consultants for the data collection, analysis and interpretation of their experiments. A most reasonable recommendation!

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