Archive for Charles Stein

Stein’s method in machine learning [workshop]

Posted in pictures, Running, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2019 by xi'an

There will be an ICML workshop on Stein’s method in machine learning & statistics, next July 14 or 15, located in Long Beach, CA. Organised by François-Xavier Briol (formerly Warwick), Lester Mckey, Chris Oates (formerly Warwick), Qiang Liu, and Larry Golstein. To quote from the webpage of the workshop

Stein’s method is a technique from probability theory for bounding the distance between probability measures using differential and difference operators. Although the method was initially designed as a technique for proving central limit theorems, it has recently caught the attention of the machine learning (ML) community and has been used for a variety of practical tasks. Recent applications include goodness-of-fit testing, generative modeling, global non-convex optimisation, variational inference, de novo sampling, constructing powerful control variates for Monte Carlo variance reduction, and measuring the quality of Markov chain Monte Carlo algorithms.

Speakers include Anima Anandkumar, Lawrence Carin, Louis Chen, Andrew Duncan, Arthur Gretton, and Susan Holmes. I am quite sorry to miss two workshops dedicated to Stein’s work in a row, the other one being at NUS, Singapore, around the Stein paradox.

“Stein deviates from the statistical norm”

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , on November 27, 2016 by xi'an

steinap

Charles M. Stein [1920-2016]

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2016 by xi'an

I have just heard that Charles Stein, Professor at Stanford University, passed away last night. Although the following image is definitely over-used, I truly feel this is the departure of a giant of statistics.  He has been deeply influential on the fields of probability and mathematical statistics, primarily in decision theory and approximation techniques. On the first field, he led to considerable changes in the perception of optimality by exhibiting the Stein phenomenon, where the aggregation of several admissible estimators of unrelated quantities may (and will) become inadmissible for the joint estimation of those quantities! Although the result can be explained by mathematical and statistical reasoning, it was still dubbed a paradox due to its counter-intuitive nature. More foundationally, it led to expose the ill-posed nature of frequentist optimality criteria and certainly contributed to the Bayesian renewal of the 1980’s, before the MCMC revolution. (It definitely contributed to my own move, as I started working on the Stein phenomenon during my thesis, before realising the fundamentally Bayesian nature of the domination results.)

“…the Bayesian point of view is often accompanied by an insistence that people ought to agree to a certain doctrine even without really knowing what this doctrine is.” (Statistical Science, 1986)

The second major contribution of Charles Stein was the introduction of a new technique for normal approximation that is now called the Stein method. It relies on a differential operator and produces estimates of approximation error in Central Limit theorems, even in dependent settings. While I am much less familiar with this aspect of Charles Stein’s work, I believe the impact it has had on the field is much more profound and durable than the Stein effect in Normal mean estimation.

(During the Vietnam War, he was quite active in the anti-war movement and the above picture from 2003 shows that his opinions had not shifted over time!) A giant truly has gone.

the philosophical importance of Stein’s paradox [a reply from the authors]

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2016 by xi'an

[In the wake of my comment on this paper written by three philosophers of Science, I received this reply from Olav Vassend.]

Thank you for reading our paper and discussing it on your blog! Our purpose with the paper was to give an introduction to Stein’s phenomenon for a philosophical audience; it was not meant to — and probably will not — offer a new and interesting perspective for a statistician who is already very familiar with Stein’s phenomenon and its extensive literature.

I have a few more specific comments:

1. We don’t rechristen Stein’s phenomenon as “holistic pragmatism.” Rather, holistic pragmatism is the attitude to frequentist estimation that we think is underwritten by Stein’s phenomenon. Since MLE is sometimes admissible and sometimes not, depending on the number of parameters estimated, the researcher has to take into account his or her goals (whether total accuracy or individual-parameter accuracy is more important) when picking an estimator. To a statistician, this might sound obvious, but to philosophers it’s a pretty radical idea.

2. “The part connecting Stein with Bayes again starts on the wrong foot, since it is untrue that any shrinkage estimator can be expressed as a Bayes posterior mean. This is not even true for the original James-Stein estimator, i.e., it is not a Bayes estimator and cannot be a Bayes posterior mean.”

That seems to depend on what you mean by a “Bayes estimator.” It is possible to have an empirical Bayes prior (constructed from the sample) whose posterior mean is identical to the original James-Stein estimator. But if you don’t count empirical Bayes priors as Bayesian, then you are right.

3. “And to state that improper priors “integrate to a number larger than 1” and that “it’s not possible to be more than 100% confident in anything”… And to confuse the Likelihood Principle with the prohibition of data dependent priors. And to consider that the MLE and any shrinkage estimator have the same expected utility under a flat prior (since, if they had, there would be no Bayes estimator!).”

I’m not sure I completely understand your criticisms here. First, as for the relation between the LP and data-dependent priors — it does seem to me that the LP precludes the use of data-dependent priors.  If you use data from an experiment to construct your prior, then — contrary to the LP — it will not be true that all the information provided by the experiment regarding which parameter is true is contained in the likelihood function, since some of the information provided by the experiment will also be in your prior.

Second, as to our claim that the ML estimator has the same expected utility (under the flat prior) as a shrinkage prior that it is dominated by—we incorporated this claim into our paper because it was an objection made by a statistician who read and commented on our paper. Are you saying the claim is false? If so, we would certainly like to know so that we can revise the paper to make it more accurate.

4. I was aware of Rubin’s idea that priors and utility functions (supposedly) are non-separable, but I didn’t (and don’t) quite see the relevance of that idea to Stein estimation.

5. “Similarly, very little of substance can be found about empirical Bayes estimation and its philosophical foundations.”

What we say about empirical Bayes priors is that they cannot be interpreted as degrees of belief; they are just tools. It will be surprising to many philosophers that priors are sometimes used in such an instrumentalist fashion in statistics.

6. The reason why we made a comparison between Stein estimation and AIC was two-fold: (a) for sociological reasons, philosophers are much more familiar with model selection than they are with, say, the LASSO or other regularized regression methods. (b) To us, it’s precisely because model selection and estimation are such different enterprises that it’s interesting that they have such a deep connection: despite being very different, AIC and shrinkage both rely on a bias-variance trade-off.

7. “I also object to the envisioned possibility of a shrinkage estimator that would improve every component of the MLE (in a uniform sense) as it contradicts the admissibility of the single component MLE!”

I don’t think our suggestion here contradicts the admissibility of single component MLE. The idea is just that if we have data D and D’ about parameters φ and φ’, then the estimates of both φ and φ’ can sometimes be improved if the estimation problems are lumped together and a shrinkage estimator is used. This doesn’t contradict the admissibility of MLE, because MLE is still admissible on each of the data sets for each of the parameters.

Again, thanks for reading the paper and for the feedback—we really do want to make sure our paper is accurate, so your feedback is much appreciated. Lastly, I apologize for the length of this comment.

Olav Vassend

the philosophical importance of Stein’s paradox

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 30, 2015 by xi'an

I recently came across this paper written by three philosophers of Science, attempting to set the Stein paradox in a philosophical light. Given my past involvement, I was obviously interested about which new perspective could be proposed, close to sixty years after Stein (1956). Paper that we should actually celebrate next year! However, when reading the document, I did not find a significantly innovative approach to the phenomenon…

The paper does not start in the best possible light since it seems to justify the use of a sample mean through maximum likelihood estimation, which only is the case for a limited number of probability distributions (including the Normal distribution, which may be an implicit assumption). For instance, when the data is Student’s t, the MLE is not the sample mean, no matter how shocking that might sounds! (And while this is a minor issue, results about the Stein effect taking place in non-normal settings appear much earlier than 1998. And earlier than in my dissertation. See, e.g., Berger and Bock (1975). Or in Brandwein and Strawderman (1978).)

While the linear regression explanation for the Stein effect is already exposed in Steve Stigler’s Neyman Lecture, I still have difficulties with the argument in that for instance we do not know the value of the parameter, which makes the regression and the inverse regression of parameter means over Gaussian observations mere concepts and nothing practical. (Except for the interesting result that two observations make both regressions coincide.) And it does not seem at all intuitive (to me) that imposing a constraint should improve the efficiency of a maximisation program… Continue reading

Bayesian propaganda?

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2015 by xi'an

“The question is about frequentist approach. Bayesian is admissable [sic] only by wrong definition as it starts with the assumption that the prior is the correct pre-information. James-Stein beats OLS without assumptions. If there is an admissable [sic] frequentist estimator then it will correspond to a true objective prior.”

I had a wee bit of a (minor, very minor!) communication problem on X validated, about a question on the existence of admissible estimators of the linear regression coefficient in multiple dimensions, under squared error loss. When I first replied that all Bayes estimators with finite risk were de facto admissible, I got the above reply, which clearly misses the point, and as I had edited the OP question to include more tags, the edited version was reverted with a comment about Bayesian propaganda! This is rather funny, if not hilarious, as (a) Bayes estimators are indeed admissible in the classical or frequentist sense—I actually fail to see a definition of admissibility in the Bayesian sense—and (b) the complete class theorems of Wald, Stein, and others (like Jack Kiefer, Larry Brown, and Jim Berger) come from the frequentist quest for best estimator(s). To make my point clearer, I also reproduced in my answer the Stein’s necessary and sufficient condition for admissibility from my book but it did not help, as the theorem was “too complex for [the OP] to understand”, which shows in fine the point of reading textbooks!

reading classics (#8)

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, University life with tags , , , on January 23, 2014 by xi'an

La Défense from Paris-Dauphine, Nov. 15, 2012The Reading Classics Seminar today was about (the classic) Donoho and Johnstone’s denoising through wavelets, a 1995 JASA paper entitled Adapting to unknown smoothness via wavelet shrinkage. Two themes (shrinkage and wavelets) I discovered during my PhD years. (Although I did not work on wavelets then, I simply attended seminars where wavelets were the new thing.) My student Anouar Seghir gave a well-prepared presentation, introducing wavelets and Stein’s estimator of the risk. He clearly worked hard on the paper. However, I still feel the talk focussed too much on the maths and not enough on the motivations. For instance I failed to understand why the variance in the white noise was known and where the sparsity indicator came from. (This is anyway a common flaw in those Reading Classics presentations.) The presentation was helped by an on-line demonstration in Matlab, using the resident velvet code. Here are the slides: