Archive for Charles Darwin

a conversation about eugenism at JSM

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2020 by xi'an

Following the recent debate on Fisher’s involvement in eugenics (and the renaming of the R.A. Fisher Award and Lectureship into the COPSS Distinguished Achievement Award and Lectureship), the ASA is running a JSM round table on Eugenics and its connections with statistics, to which I had been invited, along with Scarlett BellamyDavid Bellhouse, and David Cutler. The discussion is planned on 06 August at 3pm (ET, i.e., 7GMT) and here is the abstract:

The development of eugenics and modern statistical theory are inextricably entwined in history.  Their evolution was guided by the culture and societal values of scholars (and the ruling class) of their time through and including today.  Motivated by current-day societal reckonings of systemic injustice and inequity, this roundtable panel explores the role of prominent statisticians and of statistics more broadly in the development of eugenics at its inception and over the past century.  Leveraging a diverse panel, the discussions seek to shed light on how eugenics and statistics – despite their entangled past — have now severed, continue to have presence in ways that affect our lives and aspirations.

It is actually rather unclear to me why I was invited at the table, apart from my amateur interest in the history of statistics. On a highly personal level, I remember being introduced to Galton’s racial theories during my first course on probability, in 1982, by Prof Ogier, who always used historical anecdotes to enliven his lectures, like Galton trying to measure women mensurations during his South Africa expedition. Lectures that took place in the INSEE building, boulevard Adolphe Pinard in Paris, with said Adolphe Pinard being a founding member of the French Eugenics Society in 1913.

over-confident about mis-specified models?

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2019 by xi'an

Ziheng Yang and Tianqui Zhu published a paper in PNAS last year that criticises Bayesian posterior probabilities used in the comparison of models under misspecification as “overconfident”. The paper is written from a phylogeneticist point of view, rather than from a statistician’s perspective, as shown by the Editor in charge of the paper [although I thought that, after Steve Fienberg‘s intervention!, a statistician had to be involved in a submission relying on statistics!] a paper , but the analysis is rather problematic, at least seen through my own lenses… With no statistical novelty, apart from looking at the distribution of posterior probabilities in toy examples. The starting argument is that Bayesian model comparison is often reporting posterior probabilities in favour of a particular model that are close or even equal to 1.

“The Bayesian method is widely used to estimate species phylogenies using molecular sequence data. While it has long been noted to produce spuriously high posterior probabilities for trees or clades, the precise reasons for this over confidence are unknown. Here we characterize the behavior of Bayesian model selection when the compared models are misspecified and demonstrate that when the models are nearly equally wrong, the method exhibits unpleasant polarized behaviors,supporting one model with high confidence while rejecting others. This provides an explanation for the empirical observation of spuriously high posterior probabilities in molecular phylogenetics.”

The paper focus on the behaviour of posterior probabilities to strongly support a model against others when the sample size is large enough, “even when” all models are wrong, the argument being apparently that the correct output should be one of equal probability between models, or maybe a uniform distribution of these model probabilities over the probability simplex. Why should it be so?! The construction of the posterior probabilities is based on a meta-model that assumes the generating model to be part of a list of mutually exclusive models. It does not account for cases where “all models are wrong” or cases where “all models are right”. The reported probability is furthermore epistemic, in that it is relative to the measure defined by the prior modelling, not to a promise of a frequentist stabilisation in a ill-defined asymptotia. By which I mean that a 99.3% probability of model M¹ being “true”does not have a universal and objective meaning. (Moderation note: the high polarisation of posterior probabilities was instrumental in our investigation of model choice with ABC tools and in proposing instead error rates in ABC random forests.)

The notion that two models are equally wrong because they are both exactly at the same Kullback-Leibler distance from the generating process (when optimised over the parameter) is such a formal [or cartoonesque] notion that it does not make much sense. There is always one model that is slightly closer and eventually takes over. It is also bizarre that the argument does not account for the complexity of each model and the resulting (Occam’s razor) penalty. Even two models with a single parameter are not necessarily of intrinsic dimension one, as shown by DIC. And thus it is not a surprise if the posterior probability mostly favours one versus the other. In any case, an healthily sceptic approach to Bayesian model choice means looking at the behaviour of the procedure (Bayes factor, posterior probability, posterior predictive, mixture weight, &tc.) under various assumptions (model M¹, M², &tc.) to calibrate the numerical value, rather than taking it at face value. By which I do not mean a frequentist evaluation of this procedure. Actually, it is rather surprising that the authors of the PNAS paper do not jump on the case when the posterior probability of model M¹ say is uniformly distributed, since this would be a perfect setting when the posterior probability is a p-value. (This is also what happens to the bootstrapped version, see the last paragraph of the paper on p.1859, the year Darwin published his Origin of Species.)

machine learning methods are useful for ABC [or my first PCI Evol Biol!]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , on November 23, 2017 by xi'an

While I am still working on setting a PCI [peer community in] Comput Stats, having secure sponsorship of some societies (ASA, KSS, RSS, SFdS, and hopefully ISBA), my coauthors Jean-Michel Marin and Louis Raynal submitted our paper ABC random forests for Bayesian parameter inference to PCI Evol Biol. And after a few months of review, including a revision accounting for the reviewers’ requests, our paper stood the test and the recommendation by Michael Blum and Dennis Prangle got published there. Great news, and hopefully helpful for our submission within the coming days!

Darwin’s radio [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2016 by xi'an

When in Sacramento two weeks ago I came across the Beers Books Center bookstore, with a large collection of used and (nearly) new cheap books and among other books I bought Greg Bear’s Darwin Radio. I had (rather) enjoyed another book of his’, Hull Zero Three, not to mention one of his first books, Blood Music, I read in the mid 1980’s, and the premises of this novel sounded promising, not mentioning the Nebula award. The theme is of a major biological threat, apparently due to a new virus, and of the scientific unraveling of what the threat really means. (Spoilers alert!) In that respect it sounds rather similar to the (great) Crichton‘s The Andromeda Strain, which is actually mentioned by some characters in this book. As is Ebola, as a sort of contrapoint (since Ebola is a deadly virus, although the epidemic in Western Africa now seems to have vanished). The biological concept exploited here is dormant DNA in non-coding parts of the genome that periodically get awaken and induce massive steps in the evolution. So massive that carriers of those mutations are killed by locals. Until the day it happens in an all-connected World and the mutation can no longer be stopped. The concept is compelling if not completely convincing of course, while the outcome of a new human race, which is to Homo Sapiens what Homo Sapiens was to Neanderthal, is rather disappointing. (How could it be otherwise?!) But I did appreciate the postulate of a massive and immediate change in the genome, even though the details were disputable and the dismissal of Dawkins‘ perspective poorly defended. From a stylistic perspective, the style is at time heavy, while there are too many chance occurrences, like the main character happening to be in Georgia for a business deal (spoilers, spoilers!) at the times of the opening of collective graves, or the second main character coming upon a couple of Neanderthal mummies with a Sapiens baby, or yet this pair of main characters falling in love and delivering a live mutant baby-girl. But I enjoyed reading it between San Francisco and Melbourne, with a few hours of lost sleep and work. It is a page turner, no doubt! I also like the political undercurrents, from riots to emergency measures, to an effective dictatorship controlling pregnancies and detaining newborns and their mothers.

One important thread in the book deals with anthropology digs getting against Native claims to corpses and general opposition to such digs. This reminded me of a very recent article in Nature where a local Indian tribe had claimed rights to several thousand year old skeletons, whose DNA was then showed to be more related with far away groups than the claimants. But where the tribe was still granted the last word, in a rather worrying jurisprudence.

Philosophy of Science, a very short introduction (and review)

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2013 by xi'an

When visiting the bookstore on the campus of the University of Warwick two weeks ago, I spotted this book, Philosophy of Science, a very short introduction, by Samir Okasha, and the “bargain” offer of getting two books for £10 enticed me to buy it along with a Friedrich Nietzsche, a very short introduction… (Maybe with the irrational hope that my daughter would take a look at those for her philosophy course this year!)

Popper’s attempt to show that science can get by without induction does not succeed.” (p.23)

Since this is [unsusrprisingly!] a very short introduction, I did not get much added value from the book. Nonetheless, it was an easy read for short trips in the metro and short waits here and there. And would be a good [very short] introduction to any one newly interested in the philosophy of sciences. The first chapter tries to define what science is, with reference to the authority of Popper (and a mere mention of Wittgenstein), and concludes that there is no clear-cut demarcation between science and pseudo-science. (Mathematics apparently does not constitute a science: “Physics is the most fundamental science of all”, p.55) I would have liked to see the quote from Friedrich Nietzsche

“It is perhaps just dawning on five or six minds that physics, too, is only an interpretation and exegesis of the world (to suit us, if I may say so!) and not a world-explanation.”

in Beyond Good and Evil. as it illustrates the main point of the chapter and maybe the book that scientific theories can never be proven true, Plus, it is often misinterpreted as a anti-science statement by Nietzsche. (Plus, it links both books I bought!) Continue reading