Archive for E.T. Jaynes

Mea Culpa

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2020 by xi'an

[A quote from Jaynes about improper priors that I had missed in his book, Probability Theory.]

For many years, the present writer was caught in this error just as badly as anybody else, because Bayesian calculations with improper priors continued to give just the reasonable and clearly correct results that common sense demanded. So warnings about improper priors went unheeded; just that psychological phenomenon. Finally, it was the marginalization paradox that forced recognition that we had only been lucky in our choice of problems. If we wish to consider an improper prior, the only correct way of doing it is to approach it as a well-defined limit of a sequence of proper priors. If the correct limiting procedure should yield an improper posterior pdf for some parameter α, then probability theory is telling us that the prior information and data are too meager to permit any inferences about α. Then the only remedy is to seek more data or more prior information; probability theory does not guarantee in advance that it will lead us to a useful answer to every conceivable question.Generally, the posterior pdf is better behaved than the prior because of the extra information in the likelihood function, and the correct limiting procedure yields a useful posterior pdf that is analytically simpler than any from a proper prior. The most universally useful results of Bayesian analysis obtained in the past are of this type, because they tended to be rather simple problems, in which the data were indeed so much more informative than the prior information that an improper prior gave a reasonable approximation – good enough for all practical purposes – to the strictly correct results (the two results agreed typically to six or more significant figures).

In the future, however, we cannot expect this to continue because the field is turning to more complex problems in which the prior information is essential and the solution is found by computer. In these cases it would be quite wrong to think of passing to an improper prior. That would lead usually to computer crashes; and, even if a crash is avoided, the conclusions would still be, almost always, quantitatively wrong. But, since likelihood functions are bounded, the analytical solution with proper priors is always guaranteed to converge properly to finite results; therefore it is always possible to write a computer program in such a way (avoid underflow, etc.) that it cannot crash when given proper priors. So, even if the criticisms of improper priors on grounds of marginalization were unjustified,it remains true that in the future we shall be concerned necessarily with proper priors.

contemporary issues in hypothesis testing

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2016 by xi'an

hipocontemptThis week [at Warwick], among other things, I attended the CRiSM workshop on hypothesis testing, giving the same talk as at ISBA last June. There was a most interesting and unusual talk by Nick Chater (from Warwick) about the psychological aspects of hypothesis testing, namely about the unnatural features of an hypothesis in everyday life, i.e., how far this formalism stands from human psychological functioning.  Or what we know about it. And then my Warwick colleague Tom Nichols explained how his recent work on permutation tests for fMRIs, published in PNAS, testing hypotheses on what should be null if real data and getting a high rate of false positives, got the medical imaging community all up in arms due to over-simplified reports in the media questioning the validity of 15 years of research on fMRI and the related 40,000 papers! For instance, some of the headings questioned the entire research in the area. Or transformed a software bug missing the boundary effects into a major flaw.  (See this podcast on Not So Standard Deviations for a thoughtful discussion on the issue.) One conclusion of this story is to be wary of assertions when submitting a hot story to journals with a substantial non-scientific readership! The afternoon talks were equally exciting, with Andrew explaining to us live from New York why he hates hypothesis testing and prefers model building. With the birthday model as an example. And David Draper gave an encompassing talk about the distinctions between inference and decision, proposing a Jaynes information criterion and illustrating it on Mendel‘s historical [and massaged!] pea dataset. The next morning, Jim Berger gave an overview on the frequentist properties of the Bayes factor, with in particular a novel [to me] upper bound on the Bayes factor associated with a p-value (Sellke, Bayarri and Berger, 2001)

B¹⁰(p) ≤ 1/-e p log p

with the specificity that B¹⁰(p) is not testing the original hypothesis [problem] but a substitute where the null is the hypothesis that p is uniformly distributed, versus a non-parametric alternative that p is more concentrated near zero. This reminded me of our PNAS paper on the impact of summary statistics upon Bayes factors. And of some forgotten reference studying Bayesian inference based solely on the p-value… It is too bad I had to rush back to Paris, as this made me miss the last talks of this fantastic workshop centred on maybe the most important aspect of statistics!

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

failures and uses of Jaynes’ principle of transformation groups

Posted in Books, Kids, R, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , on April 14, 2015 by xi'an

This paper by Alon Drory was arXived last week when I was at Columbia. It reassesses Jaynes’ resolution of Bertrand’s paradox, which finds three different probabilities for a given geometric event depending on the underlying σ-algebra (or definition of randomness!). Both Poincaré and Jaynes argued against Bertrand that there was only one acceptable solution under symmetry properties. The author of this paper, Alon Drory, argues this is not the case!

“…contrary to Jaynes’ assertion, each of the classical three solutions of Bertrand’s problem (and additional ones as well!) can be derived by the principle of transformation groups, using the exact same symmetries, namely rotational, scaling and translational invariance.”

Drory rephrases as follows:  “In a circle, select at random a chord that is not a diameter. What is the probability that its length is greater than the side of the equilateral triangle inscribed in the circle?”.  Jaynes’ solution is indifferent to the orientation of one observer wrt the circle, to the radius of the circle, and to the location of the centre. The later is the one most discussed by Drory, as he argued that it does not involve an observer but the random experiment itself and relies on a specific version of straw throws in Jaynes’ argument. Meaning other versions are also available. This reminded me of an earlier post on Buffon’s needle and on the different versions of the needle being thrown over the floor. Therein reflecting on the connection with Bertrand’s paradox. And running some further R experiments. Drory’s alternative to Jaynes’ manner of throwing straws is to impale them on darts and throw the darts first! (Which is the same as one of my needle solutions.)

“…the principle of transformation groups does not make the problem well-posed, and well-posing strategies that rely on such symmetry considerations ought therefore to be rejected.”

In short, the conclusion of the paper is that there is an indeterminacy in Bertrand’s problem that allows several resolutions under the principle of indifference that end up with a large range of probabilities, thus siding with Bertrand rather than Jaynes.

Bayesian programming [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 3, 2014 by xi'an

“We now think the Bayesian Programming methodology and tools are reaching maturity. The goal of this book is to present them so that anyone is able to use them. We will, of course, continue to improve tools and develop new models. However, pursuing the idea that probability is an alternative to Boolean logic, we now have a new important research objective, which is to design specific hsrdware, inspired from biology, to build a Bayesian computer.”(p.xviii)

On the plane to and from Montpellier, I took an extended look at Bayesian Programming a CRC Press book recently written by Pierre Bessière, Emmanuel Mazer, Juan-Manuel Ahuactzin, and Kamel Mekhnacha. (Very nice picture of a fishing net on the cover, by the way!) Despite the initial excitement at seeing a book which final goal was to achieve a Bayesian computer, as demonstrated by the above quote, I however soon found the book too arid to read due to its highly formalised presentation… The contents are clear indications that the approach is useful as they illustrate the use of Bayesian programming in different decision-making settings, including a collection of Python codes, so it brings an answer to the what but it somehow misses the how in that the construction of the priors and the derivation of the posteriors is not explained in a way one could replicate.

“A modeling methodology is not sufficient to run Bayesian programs. We also require an efficient Bayesian inference engine to automate the probabilistic calculus. This assumes we have a collection of inference algorithms adapted and tuned to more or less specific models and a software architecture to combine them in a coherent and unique tool.” (p.9)

For instance, all models therein are described via the curly brace formalism summarised by

phdthesis28xwhich quickly turns into an unpalatable object, as in this example taken from the online PhD thesis of Gabriel Synnaeve (where he applied Bayesian programming principles to a MMORPG called StarCraft and developed an AI (or bot) able to play BroodwarBotQ)

phdthesis37xthesis that I found most interesting!

“Consequently, we have 21 × 16 = 336 bell-shaped distributions and we have 2 × 21 × 16 = 772 free parameters: 336 means and 336 standard deviations.¨(p.51)

Now, getting back to the topic of the book, I can see connections with statistical problems and models, and not only via the application of Bayes’ theorem, when the purpose (or Question) is to take a decision, for instance in a robotic action. I still remain puzzled by the purpose of the book, since it starts with very low expectations on the reader, but hurries past notions like Kalman filters and Metropolis-Hastings algorithms in a few paragraphs. I do not get some of the details, like this notion of a discretised Gaussian distribution (I eventually found the place where the 772 prior parameters are “learned” in a phase called “identification”.)

“Thanks to conditional independence the curse of dimensionality has been broken! What has been shown to be true here for the required memory space is also true for the complexity of inferences. Conditional independence is the principal tool to keep the calculation tractable. Tractability of Bayesian inference computation is of course a major concern as it has been proved NP-hard (Cooper, 1990).”(p.74)

The final chapters (Chap. 14 on “Bayesian inference algorithms revisited”, Chap. 15 on “Bayesian learning revisited” and  Chap. 16 on “Frequently asked questions and frequently argued matters” [!]) are definitely those I found easiest to read and relate to. With mentions made of conjugate priors and of the EM algorithm as a (Bayes) classifier. The final chapter mentions BUGS, Hugin and… Stan! Plus a sequence of 23 PhD theses defended on Bayesian programming for robotics in the past 20 years. And explains the authors’ views on the difference between Bayesian programming and Bayesian networks (“any Bayesian network can be represented in the Bayesian programming formalism, but the opposite is not true”, p.316), between Bayesian programming and probabilistic programming (“we do not search to extend classical languages but rather to replace them by a new programming approach based on probability”, p.319), between Bayesian programming and Bayesian modelling (“Bayesian programming goes one step further”, p.317), with a further (self-)justification of why the book sticks to discrete variables, and further more philosophical sections referring to Jaynes and the principle of maximum entropy.

“The “objectivity” of the subjectivist approach then lies in the fact that two different subjects with same preliminary knowledge and same observations will inevitably reach the same conclusions.”(p.327)

Bayesian Programming thus provides a good snapshot of (or window on) what one can achieve in uncertain environment decision-making with Bayesian techniques. It shows a long-term reflection on those notions by Pierre Bessière, his colleagues and students. The topic is most likely too remote from my own interests for the above review to be complete. Therefore, if anyone is interested in reviewing any further this book for CHANCE, before I send the above to the journal, please contact me. (Usual provisions apply.)