Archive for evidence

scalable Metropolis-Hastings, nested Monte Carlo, and normalising flows

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2020 by xi'an

Over a sunny if quarantined Sunday, I started reading the PhD dissertation of Rob Cornish, Oxford University, as I am the external member of his viva committee. Ending up in a highly pleasant afternoon discussing this thesis over a (remote) viva yesterday. (If bemoaning a lost opportunity to visit Oxford!) The introduction to the viva was most helpful and set the results within the different time and geographical zones of the Ph.D since Rob had to switch from one group of advisors in Engineering to another group in Statistics. Plus an encompassing prospective discussion, expressing pessimism at exact MCMC for complex models and looking forward further advances in probabilistic programming.

Made of three papers, the thesis includes this ICML 2019 [remember the era when there were conferences?!] paper on scalable Metropolis-Hastings, by Rob Cornish, Paul Vanetti, Alexandre Bouchard-Côté, Georges Deligiannidis, and Arnaud Doucet, which I commented last year. Which achieves a remarkable and paradoxical O(1/√n) cost per iteration, provided (global) lower bounds are found on the (local) Metropolis-Hastings acceptance probabilities since they allow for Poisson thinning à la Devroye (1986) and  second order Taylor expansions constructed for all components of the target, with the third order derivatives providing bounds. However, the variability of the acceptance probability gets higher, which induces a longer but still manageable if the concentration of the posterior is in tune with the Bernstein von Mises asymptotics. I had not paid enough attention in my first read at the strong theoretical justification for the method, relying on the convergence of MAP estimates in well- and (some) mis-specified settings. Now, I would have liked to see the paper dealing with a more complex problem that logistic regression.

The second paper in the thesis is an ICML 2018 proceeding by Tom Rainforth, Robert Cornish, Hongseok Yang, Andrew Warrington, and Frank Wood, which considers Monte Carlo problems involving several nested expectations in a non-linear manner, meaning that (a) several levels of Monte Carlo approximations are required, with associated asymptotics, and (b) the resulting overall estimator is biased. This includes common doubly intractable posteriors, obviously, as well as (Bayesian) design and control problems. [And it has nothing to do with nested sampling.] The resolution chosen by the authors is strictly plug-in, in that they replace each level in the nesting with a Monte Carlo substitute and do not attempt to reduce the bias. Which means a wide range of solutions (other than the plug-in one) could have been investigated, including bootstrap maybe. For instance, Bayesian design is presented as an application of the approach, but since it relies on the log-evidence, there exist several versions for estimating (unbiasedly) this log-evidence. Similarly, the Forsythe-von Neumann technique applies to arbitrary transforms of a primary integral. The central discussion dwells on the optimal choice of the volume of simulations at each level, optimal in terms of asymptotic MSE. Or rather asymptotic bound on the MSE. The interesting result being that the outer expectation requires the square of the number of simulations for the other expectations. Which all need converge to infinity. A trick in finding an estimator for a polynomial transform reminded me of the SAME algorithm in that it duplicated the simulations as many times as the highest power of the polynomial. (The ‘Og briefly reported on this paper… four years ago.)

The third and last part of the thesis is a proposal [to appear in ICML 20] on relaxing bijectivity constraints in normalising flows with continuously index flows. (Or CIF. As Rob made a joke about this cleaning brand, let me add (?) to that joke by mentioning that looking at CIF and bijections is less dangerous in a Trump cum COVID era at CIF and injections!) With Anthony Caterini, George Deligiannidis and Arnaud Doucet as co-authors. I am much less familiar with this area and hence a wee bit puzzled at the purpose of removing what I understand to be an appealing side of normalising flows, namely to produce a manageable representation of density functions as a combination of bijective and differentiable functions of a baseline random vector, like a standard Normal vector. The argument made in the paper is that imposing this representation of the density imposes a constraint on the topology of its support since said support is homeomorphic to the support of the baseline random vector. While the supporting theoretical argument is a mathematical theorem that shows the Lipschitz bound on the transform should be infinity in the case the supports are topologically different, these arguments may be overly theoretical when faced with the practical implications of the replacement strategy. I somewhat miss its overall strength given that the whole point seems to be in approximating a density function, based on a finite sample.

back to Ockham’s razor

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2019 by xi'an

“All in all, the Bayesian argument for selecting the MAP model as the single ‘best’ model is suggestive but not compelling.”

Last month, Jonty Rougier and Carey Priebe arXived a paper on Ockham’s factor, with a generalisation of a prior distribution acting as a regulariser, R(θ). Calling on the late David MacKay to argue that the evidence involves the correct penalising factor although they acknowledge that his central argument is not absolutely convincing, being based on a first-order Laplace approximation to the posterior distribution and hence “dubious”. The current approach stems from the candidate’s formula that is already at the core of Sid Chib’s method. The log evidence then decomposes as the sum of the maximum log-likelihood minus the log of the posterior-to-prior ratio at the MAP estimator. Called the flexibility.

“Defining model complexity as flexibility unifies the Bayesian and Frequentist justifications for selecting a single model by maximizing the evidence.”

While they bring forward rational arguments to consider this as a measure model complexity, it remains at an informal level in that other functions of this ratio could be used as well. This is especially hard to accept by non-Bayesians in that it (seriously) depends on the choice of the prior distribution, as all transforms of the evidence would. I am thus skeptical about the reception of the argument by frequentists…

Introductory overview lecture: the ABC of ABC [JSM19 #1]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 28, 2019 by xi'an

Here are my slides [more or less] for the introductory overview lecture I am giving today at JSM 2019, 4:00-5:50, CC-Four Seasons I. There is obviously quite an overlap with earlier courses I gave on the topic, although I refrained here from mentioning any specific application (like population genetics) to focus on statistical and computational aspects.

Along with the other introductory overview lectures in this edition of JSM:

dynamic nested sampling for stars

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2019 by xi'an

In the sequel of earlier nested sampling packages, like MultiNest, Joshua Speagle has written a new package called dynesty that manages dynamic nested sampling, primarily intended for astronomical applications. Which is the field where nested sampling is the most popular. One of the first remarks in the paper is that nested sampling can be more easily implemented by using a Uniform reparameterisation of the prior, that is, a reparameterisation that turns the prior into a Uniform over the unit hypercube. Which means in fine that the prior distribution can be generated from a fixed vector of uniforms and known transforms. Maybe not such an issue given that this is the prior after all.  The author considers this makes sampling under the likelihood constraint a much simpler problem but it all depends in the end on the concentration of the likelihood within the unit hypercube. And on the ability to reach the higher likelihood slices. I did not see any special trick when looking at the documentation, but reflected on the fundamental connection between nested sampling and this ability. As in the original proposal by John Skilling (2006), the slice volumes are “estimated” by simulated Beta order statistics, with no connection with the actual sequence of simulation or the problem at hand. We did point out our incomprehension for such a scheme in our Biometrika paper with Nicolas Chopin. As in earlier versions, the algorithm attempts at visualising the slices by different bounding techniques, before proceeding to explore the bounded regions by several exploration algorithms, including HMC.

“As with any sampling method, we strongly advocate that Nested Sampling should not be viewed as being strictly“better” or “worse” than MCMC, but rather as a tool that can be more or less useful in certain problems. There is no “One True Method to Rule Them All”, even though it can be tempting to look for one.”

When introducing the dynamic version, the author lists three drawbacks for the static (original) version. One is the reliance on this transform of a Uniform vector over an hypercube. Another one is that the overall runtime is highly sensitive to the choice the prior. (If simulating from the prior rather than an importance function, as suggested in our paper.) A third one is the issue that nested sampling is impervious to the final goal, evidence approximation versus posterior simulation, i.e., uses a constant rate of prior integration. The dynamic version simply modifies the number of point simulated in each slice. According to the (relative) increase in evidence provided by the current slice, estimated through iterations. This makes nested sampling a sort of inversted Wang-Landau since it sharpens the difference between slices. (The dynamic aspects for estimating the volumes of the slices and the stopping rule may hinder convergence in unclear ways, which is not discussed by the paper.) Among the many examples produced in the paper, a 200 dimension Normal target, which is an interesting object for posterior simulation in that most of the posterior mass rests on a ring away from the maximum of the likelihood. But does not seem to merit a mention in the discussion. Another example of heterogeneous regression favourably compares dynesty with MCMC in terms of ESS (but fails to include an HMC version).

[Breaking News: Although I wrote this post before the exciting first image of the black hole in M87 was made public and hence before I was aware of it, the associated AJL paper points out relying on dynesty for comparing several physical models of the phenomenon by nested sampling.]

 

let the evidence speak [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2018 by xi'an

This book by Alan Jessop, professor at the Durham University Business School,  aims at presenting Bayesian ideas and methods towards decision making “without formula because they are not necessary; the ability to add and multiply is all that is needed.” The trick is in using a Bayes grid, in other words a two by two table. (There are a few formulas that survived the slaughter, see e.g. on p. 91 the formula for the entropy. Contained in the chapter on information that I find definitely unclear.) When leaving the 2×2 world, things become more complicated and the construction of a prior belief as a probability density gets heroic without the availability of maths formulas. The first part of the paper is about Likelihood, albeit not the likelihood function, despite having the general rule that (p.73)

belief is proportional to base rate x likelihood

which is the book‘s version of Bayes’ (base?!) theorem. It then goes on to discuss the less structure nature of prior (or prior beliefs) against likelihood by describing Tony O’Hagan’s way of scaling experts’ beliefs in terms of a Beta distribution. And mentioning Jaynes’ maximum entropy prior without a single formula. What is hard to fathom from the text is how can one derive the likelihood outside surveys. (Using the illustration of 1963 Oswald’s murder by Ruby in the likelihood chapter does not particularly help!) A bit of nitpicking at this stage: the sentence

“The ancient Greeks, and before them the Chinese and the Aztecs…”

is historically incorrect since, while the Chinese empire dates back before the Greek dark ages, the Aztecs only rule Mexico from the 14th century (AD) until the Spaniard invasion. While most of the book sticks with unidimensional parameters, it also discusses more complex structures, for which it relies on Monte Carlo, although the description is rather cryptic (use your spreadsheet!, p.133). The book at this stage turns into a more story-telling mode, by considering for instance the Federalist papers analysis by Mosteller and Wallace. The reader can only follow the process of assessing a document authorship for a single word, as multidimensional cases (for either data or parameters) are out of reach. The same comment applies to the ecology, archeology, and psychology chapters that follow. The intermediary chapter on the “grossly misleading” [Court wording] of the statistical evidence in the Sally Clark prosecution is more accessible in that (again) it relies on a single number. Returning to the ban of Bayes rule in British courts:

In the light of the strong criticism by this court in the 1990s of using Bayes theorem before the jury in cases where there was no reliable statistical evidence, the practice of using a Bayesian approach and likelihood ratios to formulate opinions placed before a jury without that process being disclosed and debated in court is contrary to principles of open justice.

the discussion found in the book is quite moderate and inclusive, in that a Bayesian analysis helps in gathering evidence about a case, but may be misunderstood or misused at the [non-Bayesian] decision level.

In conclusion, Let the Evidence Speak is an interesting introduction to Bayesian thinking, through a simplifying device, the Bayes grid, which seems to come from management, with a large number of examples, if not necessarily all realistic and some side-stories. I doubt this exposure can produce expert practitioners, but it makes for an worthwhile awakening for someone “likely to have read this book because [one] had heard of Bayes but were uncertain what is was” (p.222). With commendable caution and warnings along the way.