## Probability and Bayesian modeling [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, R, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2020 by xi'an

Probability and Bayesian modeling is a textbook by Jim Albert [whose reply is included at the end of this entry] and Jingchen Hu that CRC Press sent me for review in CHANCE. (The book is also freely available in bookdown format.) The level of the textbook is definitely most introductory as it dedicates its first half on probability concepts (with no measure theory involved), meaning mostly focusing on counting and finite sample space models. The second half moves to Bayesian inference(s) with a strong reliance on JAGS for the processing of more realistic models. And R vignettes for the simplest cases (where I discovered R commands I ignored, like dplyr::mutate()!).

As a preliminary warning about my biases, I am always reserved at mixing introductions to probability theory and to (Bayesian) statistics in the same book, as I feel they should be separated to avoid confusion. As for instance between histograms and densities, or between (theoretical) expectation and (empirical) mean. I therefore fail to relate to the pace and tone adopted in the book which, in my opinion, seems to dally on overly simple examples [far too often concerned with food or baseball] while skipping over the concepts and background theory. For instance, introducing the concept of subjective probability as early as page 6 is laudable but I doubt it will engage fresh readers when describing it as a measurement of one’s “belief about the truth of an event”, then stressing that “make any kind of measurement, one needs a tool like a scale or ruler”. Overall, I have no particularly focused criticisms on the probability part except for the discrete vs continuous imbalance. (With the Poisson distribution not covered in the Discrete Distributions chapter. And the “bell curve” making a weird and unrigorous appearance there.) Galton’s board (no mention found of quincunx) could have been better exploited towards the physical definition of a prior, following Steve Stiegler’s analysis, by adding a second level. Or turned into an R coding exercise. In the continuous distributions chapter, I would have seen the cdf coming first to the pdf, rather than the opposite. And disliked the notion that a Normal distribution was supported by an histogram of (marathon) running times, i.e. values lower bounded by 122 (at the moment). Or later (in Chapter 8) for Roger Federer’s serving times. Incidentally, a fun typo on p.191, at least fun for LaTeX users, as

$f_{Y\ mid X}$

with an extra space between \’ and mid’! (I also noticed several occurrences of the unvoidable “the the” typo in the last chapters.) The simulation from a bivariate Normal distribution hidden behind a customised R function sim_binom() when it could have been easily described as a two-stage hierarchy. And no comment on the fact that a sample from Y-1.5X could be directly derived from the joint sample. (Too unconscious a statistician?)

When moving to Bayesian inference, a large section is spent on very simple models like estimating a proportion or a mean, covering both discrete and continuous priors. And strongly focusing on conjugate priors despite giving warnings that they do not necessarily reflect prior information or prior belief. With some debatable recommendation for “large” prior variances as weakly informative or (worse) for Exp(1) as a reference prior for sample precision in the linear model (p.415). But also covering Bayesian model checking either via prior predictive (hence Bayes factors) or posterior predictive (with no mention of using the data twice). A very marginalia in introducing a sufficient statistic for the Normal model. In the Normal model checking section, an estimate of the posterior density of the mean is used without (apparent) explanation.

“It is interesting to note the strong negative correlation in these parameters. If one assigned informative independent priors on and , these prior beliefs would be counter to the correlation between the two parameters observed in the data.”

For the same reasons of having to cut on mathematical validation and rigour, Chapter 9 on MCMC is not explaining why MCMC algorithms are converging outside of the finite state space case. The proposal in the algorithmic representation is chosen as a Uniform one, since larger dimension problems are handled by either Gibbs or JAGS. The recommendations about running MCMC do not include how many iterations one “should” run (or other common queries on Stack eXchange), albeit they do include the sensible running multiple chains and comparing simulated predictive samples with the actual data as a  model check. However, the MCMC chapter very quickly and inevitably turns into commented JAGS code. Which I presume would require more from the students than just reading the available code. Like JAGS manual. Chapter 10 is mostly a series of examples of Bayesian hierarchical modeling, with illustrations of the shrinkage effect like the one on the book cover. Chapter 11 covers simple linear regression with some mentions of weakly informative priors,  although in a BUGS spirit of using large [enough?!] variances: “If one has little information about the location of a regression parameter, then the choice of the prior guess is not that important and one chooses a large value for the prior standard deviation . So the regression intercept and slope are each assigned a Normal prior with a mean of 0 and standard deviation equal to the large value of 100.” (p.415). Regardless of the scale of y? Standardisation is covered later in the chapter (with the use of the R function scale()) as part of constructing more informative priors, although this sounds more like data-dependent priors to me in the sense that the scale and location are summarily estimated by empirical means from the data. The above quote also strikes me as potentially confusing to the students, as it does not spell at all how to design a joint distribution on the linear regression coefficients that translate the concentration of these coefficients along y̅=β⁰+β¹x̄. Chapter 12 expands the setting to multiple regression and generalised linear models, mostly consisting of examples. It however suggests using cross-validation for model checking and then advocates DIC (deviance information criterion) as “to approximate a model’s out-of-sample predictive performance” (p.463). If only because it is covered in JAGS, the definition of the criterion being relegated to the last page of the book. Chapter 13 concludes with two case studies, the (often used) Federalist Papers analysis and a baseball career hierarchical model. Which may sound far-reaching considering the modest prerequisites the book started with.

In conclusion of this rambling [lazy Sunday] review, this is not a textbook I would have the opportunity to use in Paris-Dauphine but I can easily conceive its adoption for students with limited maths exposure. As such it offers a decent entry to the use of Bayesian modelling, supported by a specific software (JAGS), and rightly stresses the call to model checking and comparison with pseudo-observations. Provided the course is reinforced with a fair amount of computer labs and projects, the book can indeed achieve to properly introduce students to Bayesian thinking. Hopefully leading them to seek more advanced courses on the topic.

Update: Jim Albert sent me the following precisions after this review got on-line:

[Disclaimer about potential self-plagiarism: this post or an edited version will eventually appear in my Books Review section in CHANCE. As appropriate for a book about Chance!]

## likelihood-free inference by ratio estimation

Posted in Books, Mountains, pictures, Running, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2019 by xi'an

“This approach for posterior estimation with generative models mirrors the approach of Gutmann and Hyvärinen (2012) for the estimation of unnormalised models. The main difference is that here we classify between two simulated data sets while Gutmann and Hyvärinen (2012) classified between the observed data and simulated reference data.”

A 2018 arXiv posting by Owen Thomas et al. (including my colleague at Warwick, Rito Dutta, CoI warning!) about estimating the likelihood (and the posterior) when it is intractable. Likelihood-free but not ABC, since the ratio likelihood to marginal is estimated in a non- or semi-parametric (and biased) way. Following Geyer’s 1994 fabulous estimate of an unknown normalising constant via logistic regression, the current paper which I read in preparation for my discussion in the ABC optimal design in Salzburg uses probabilistic classification and an exponential family representation of the ratio. Opposing data from the density and data from the marginal, assuming both can be readily produced. The logistic regression minimizing the asymptotic classification error is the logistic transform of the log-ratio. For a finite (double) sample, this minimization thus leads to an empirical version of the ratio. Or to a smooth version if the log-ratio is represented as a convex combination of summary statistics, turning the approximation into an exponential family,  which is a clever way to buckle the buckle towards ABC notions. And synthetic likelihood. Although with a difference in estimating the exponential family parameters β(θ) by minimizing the classification error, parameters that are indeed conditional on the parameter θ. Actually the paper introduces a further penalisation or regularisation term on those parameters β(θ), which could have been processed by Bayesian Lasso instead. This step is essentially dirving the selection of the summaries, except that it is for each value of the parameter θ, at the expense of a X-validation step. This is quite an original approach, as far as I can tell, but I wonder at the link with more standard density estimation methods, in particular in terms of the precision of the resulting estimate (and the speed of convergence with the sample size, if convergence there is).

## the paper where you are a node

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 5, 2019 by xi'an

Sophie Donnet pointed out to me this arXived paper by Tianxi Li, Elizaveta Levina, and Ji Zhu, on a network resampling strategy for X validation, where I appear as a datapoint rather than as a [direct] citation! Which reminded me of the “where you are the hero” gamebooks with which my kids briefly played, before computer games took over. The model selection method is illustrated on a dataset made of X citations [reduced to 706 authors]  in all papers published between 2003 and 2012 in the Annals of Statistics, Biometrika, JASA, and JRSS Series B. With the outcome being the determination of a number of communities, 20, which the authors labelled as they wanted, based on 10 authors with the largest number of citations in the category. As it happens, I appear in the list, within the “mixed (causality + theory + Bayesian)” category (!), along with Jamie Robbins, Paul Fearnhead, Gilles Blanchard, Zhiqiang Tan, Stijn Vansteelandt, Nancy Reid, Jae Kwang Kim, Tyler VanderWeele, and Scott Sisson, which is somewhat mind-boggling in that I am pretty sure I never quoted six of these authors [although I find it hilarious that Jamie appears in the category, given that we almost got into a car crash together, at one of the Valencià meetings!].

## unbiased estimation of log-normalising constants

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , on October 16, 2018 by xi'an

Maxime Rischard, Pierre Jacob, and Natesh Pillai [warning: both of whom are co-authors and friends of mine!] have just arXived a paper on the use of path sampling (a.k.a., thermodynamic integration) for log-constant unbiased approximation and the resulting consequences on Bayesian model comparison by X validation. If the goal is the estimation of the log of a ratio of two constants, creating an artificial path between the corresponding distributions and looking at the derivative at any point of this path of the log-density produces an unbiased estimator. Meaning that random sampling along the path, corrected by the distribution of the sampling still produces an unbiased estimator. From there the authors derive an unbiased estimator for any X validation objective function, CV(V,T)=-log p(V|T), taking m observations T in and leaving n-m observations T out… The marginal conditional log density in the criterion is indeed estimated by an unbiased path sampler, using a powered conditional likelihood. And unbiased MCMC schemes à la Jacob et al. for simulating unbiased MCMC realisations of the intermediary targets on the path. Tuning it towards an approximately constant cost for all powers.

So in all objectivity and fairness (!!!), I am quite excited by this new proposal within my favourite area! Or rather two areas since it brings together the estimation of constants and an alternative to Bayes factors for Bayesian testing. (Although the paper does not broach upon the calibration of the X validation values.)

## Lindley’s paradox as a loss of resolution

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2016 by xi'an

“The principle of indifference states that in the absence of prior information, all mutually exclusive models should be assigned equal prior probability.”

Colin LaMont and Paul Wiggins arxived a paper on Lindley’s paradox a few days ago. The above quote is the (standard) argument for picking (½,½) partition between the two hypotheses, which I object to if only because it does not stand for multiple embedded models. The main point in the paper is to argue about the loss of resolution induced by averaging against the prior, as illustrated by the picture above for the N(0,1) versus N(μ,1) toy problem. What they call resolution is the lowest possible mean estimate for which the null is rejected by the Bayes factor (assuming a rejection for Bayes factors larger than 1). While the detail is missing, I presume the different curves on the lower panel correspond to different choices of L when using U(-L,L) priors on μ… The “Bayesian rejoinder” to the Lindley-Bartlett paradox (p.4) is in tune with my interpretation, namely that as the prior mass under the alternative gets more and more spread out, there is less and less prior support for reasonable values of the parameter, hence a growing tendency to accept the null. This is an illustration of the long-lasting impact of the prior on the posterior probability of the model, because the data cannot impact the tails very much.

“If the true prior is known, Bayesian inference using the true prior is optimal.”

This sentence and the arguments following is meaningless in my opinion as knowing the “true” prior makes the Bayesian debate superfluous. If there was a unique, Nature provided, known prior π, it would loose its original meaning to become part of the (frequentist) model. The argument is actually mostly used in negative, namely that since it is not know we should not follow a Bayesian approach: this is, e.g., the main criticism in Inferential Models. But there is no such thing as a “true” prior! (Or a “true’ model, all things considered!) In the current paper, this pseudo-natural approach to priors is utilised to justify a return to the pseudo-Bayes factors of the 1990’s, when one part of the data is used to stabilise and proper-ise the (improper) prior, and a second part to run the test per se. This includes an interesting insight on the limiting cases of partitioning corresponding to AIC and BIC, respectively, that I had not seen before. With the surprising conclusion that “AIC is the derivative of BIC”!