Archive for evidence

atheism: a very [very] short introduction [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2017 by xi'an

After the rather disappointing Edge of Reason, I gave a try at Baggini’s very brief introduction to atheism, which is very short. And equally very disappointing. Rather than approaching the topic from a (academic) philosophical perspective, ex nihilo,  and while defending himself from doing so, the author indeed adopts a rather militant tone in trying to justify the arguments and ethics of atheism, setting the approach solely in a defensive opposition to religions. That is, in reverse, as an answer to faiths and creeds. Even when his arguments make complete sense, e.g., in the lack of support for agnosticism against atheism, the link with inductive reasoning (and Hume), and the logical [and obvious] disconnection between morality and religious attitudes.

“…once we accept the inductive method, we should, to be consistent, also accept that it points toward a naturalism that supports atheism…” (p.27)

While he mentions “militant atheism” as a fundamentalist position to be as avoided as the numerous religious versions, I find the whole exercise in this book missing the point of both an intellectual criticism of atheism [in the sense of Kant’s best seller!] and of the VSI series. Again, to define atheism as an answer to religions and to their irrationality is reducing the scope of this philosophical branch to a contrarian posture, rather than independently advancing a rationalist and scientific position on the entropic nature of life and the universe, one that does not require for a purpose or a higher cause. And to try to show it provides better answers to the same questions as those addressed by religions stoops down to their level.

“So it is not the case that atheism follows merely from some shallow commitment to the primacy of scientific inquiry.” (p.77)

The link therein with a philosophical analysis seems so weak that I deem the essay rather belongs to journalosophy. The very short history of atheism and its embarrassed debate on the attributed connections between atheism and some modern era totalitarianisms [found in the last chapter] are an illustration of this divergence from scholarly work. That the author felt the need to include pictures to illustrate his points says it all!

WBIC, practically

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2017 by xi'an

“Thus far, WBIC has received no more than a cursory mention by Gelman et al. (2013)”

I had missed this 2015  paper by Nial Friel and co-authors on a practical investigation of Watanabe’s WBIC. Where WBIC stands for widely applicable Bayesian information criterion. The thermodynamic integration approach explored by Nial and some co-authors for the approximation of the evidence, thermodynamic integration that produces the log-evidence as an integral between temperatures t=0 and t=1 of a powered evidence, is eminently suited for WBIC, as the widely applicable Bayesian information criterion is associated with the specific temperature t⁰ that makes the power posterior equidistant, Kullback-Leibler-wise, from the prior and posterior distributions. And the expectation of the log-likelihood under this very power posterior equal to the (genuine) evidence. In fact, WBIC is often associated with the sub-optimal temperature 1/log(n), where n is the (effective?) sample size. (By comparison, if my minimalist description is unclear!, thermodynamic integration requires a whole range of temperatures and associated MCMC runs.) In an ideal Gaussian setting, WBIC improves considerably over thermodynamic integration, the larger the sample the better. In more realistic settings, though, including a simple regression and a logistic [Pima Indians!] model comparison, thermodynamic integration may do better for a given computational cost although the paper is unclear about these costs. The paper also runs a comparison with harmonic mean and nested sampling approximations. Since the integral of interest involves a power of the likelihood, I wonder if a safe version of the harmonic mean resolution can be derived from simulations of the genuine posterior. Provided the exact temperature t⁰ is known…

marginal likelihoods from MCMC

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2017 by xi'an

A new arXiv entry on ways to approximate marginal likelihoods based on MCMC output, by astronomers (apparently). With an application to the 2015 Planck satellite analysis of cosmic microwave background radiation data, which reminded me of our joint work with the cosmologists of the Paris Institut d’Astrophysique ten years ago. In the literature review, the authors miss several surveys on the approximation of those marginals, including our San Antonio chapter, on Bayes factors approximations, but mention our ABC survey somewhat inappropriately since it is not advocating the use of ABC for such a purpose. (They mention as well variational Bayes approximations, INLA, powered likelihoods, if not nested sampling.)

The proposal of this paper is to identify the marginal m [actually denoted a there] as the normalising constant of an unnormalised posterior density. And to do so the authors estimate the posterior by a non-parametric approach, namely a k-nearest-neighbour estimate. With the additional twist of producing a sort of Bayesian posterior on the constant m. [And the unusual notion of number density, used for the unnormalised posterior.] The Bayesian estimation of m relies on a Poisson sampling assumption on the k-nearest neighbour distribution. (Sort of, since k is actually fixed, not random.)

If the above sounds confusing and imprecise it is because I am myself rather mystified by the whole approach and find it difficult to see the point in this alternative. The Bayesian numerics does not seem to have other purposes than producing a MAP estimate. And using a non-parametric density estimate opens a Pandora box of difficulties, the most obvious one being the curse of dimension(ality). This reminded me of the commented paper of Delyon and Portier where they achieve super-efficient convergence when using a kernel estimator, but with a considerable cost and a similar sensitivity to dimension.

round-table on Bayes[ian[ism]]

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 7, 2017 by xi'an

In a [sort of] coincidence, shortly after writing my review on Le bayésianisme aujourd’hui, I got invited by the book editor, Isabelle Drouet, to take part in a round-table on Bayesianism in La Sorbonne. Which constituted the first seminar in the monthly series of the séminaire “Probabilités, Décision, Incertitude”. Invitation that I accepted and honoured by taking place in this public debate (if not dispute) on all [or most] things Bayes. Along with Paul Egré (CNRS, Institut Jean Nicod) and Pascal Pernot (CNRS, Laboratoire de chimie physique). And without a neuroscientist, who could not or would not attend.

While nothing earthshaking came out of the seminar, and certainly not from me!, it was interesting to hear of the perspectives of my philosophy+psychology and chemistry colleagues, the former explaining his path from classical to Bayesian testing—while mentioning trying to read the book Statistical rethinking reviewed a few months ago—and the later the difficulty to teach both colleagues and students the need for an assessment of uncertainty in measurements. And alluding to GUM, developed by the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures I visited last year. I tried to present my relativity viewpoints on the [relative] nature of the prior, to avoid the usual morass of debates on the nature and subjectivity of the prior, tried to explain Bayesian posteriors via ABC, mentioned examples from The Theorem that Would not Die, yet untranslated into French, and expressed reserves about the glorious future of Bayesian statistics as we know it. This seminar was fairly enjoyable, with none of the stress induced by the constraints of a radio-show. Just too bad it did not attract a wider audience!

le bayésianisme aujourd’hui [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2017 by xi'an

It is quite rare to see a book published in French about Bayesian statistics and even rarer to find one that connects philosophy of science, foundations of probability, statistics, and applications in neurosciences and artificial intelligence. Le bayésianisme aujourd’hui (Bayesianism today) was edited by Isabelle Drouet, a Reader in Philosophy at La Sorbonne. And includes a chapter of mine on the basics of Bayesian inference (à la Bayesian Choice), written in French like the rest of the book.

The title of the book is rather surprising (to me) as I had never heard the term Bayesianism mentioned before. As shown by this link, the term apparently exists. (Even though I dislike the sound of it!) The notion is one of a probabilistic structure of knowledge and learning, à la Poincaré. As described in the beginning of the book. But I fear the arguments minimising the subjectivity of the Bayesian approach should not be advanced, following my new stance on the relativity of probabilistic statements, if only because they are defensive and open the path all too easily to counterarguments. Similarly, the argument according to which the “Big Data” era makesp the impact of the prior negligible and paradoxically justifies the use of Bayesian methods is limited to the case of little Big Data, i.e., when the observations are more or less iid with a limited number of parameters. Not when the number of parameters explodes. Another set of arguments that I find both more modern and compelling [for being modern is not necessarily a plus!] is the ease with which the Bayesian framework allows for integrative and cooperative learning. Along with its ultimate modularity, since each component of the learning mechanism can be extracted and replaced with an alternative. Continue reading

nested sampling for philogenies

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , on March 3, 2017 by xi'an

“Methods to estimate the marginal likelihood should be sensitive to the prior choice. Non-informative priors should increase the contribution of low-likelihood regions of parameter space in the estimated marginal likelihood. Consequently, the prior choice should affect the estimated evidence.”

 In a most recent arXival, Maturana, Brewer, and Klaere discuss of the appeal of nested sampling for conducting model choice in philogenetic models. In comparison with the “generalized steppingstone sampling” method, which represents the evidence as a product of ratios of evidences (Fan et al., 2011). And which I do not think I have previously met, with all references provided therein relating to Bayesian philogenetics, apparently. The stepping stone approach relies on a sequence of tempered targets, moving from a reference distribution to the real target as a temperature β goes from zero to one. (The paper also mentions thermodynamic integration as too costly.) Nested sampling—much discussed on this blog!—is presented in this paper as having the ability to deal with partly convex likelihoods, although I do not really get how or why. (As there is nothing new in the fairly pedagogical pretentation of nested sampling therein.) Nothing appears to be mentioned about the difficulty to handle multimodal as high likelihood isolated regions are unlikely to be sampled from poorly weighted priors (by which I mean that a region with significant likelihood mass is unlikely to get sampled if the prior distribution gives little prior weight to that region). The novelty in the paper is to compare nested sampling with generalized steppingstone sampling and path sampling on several phylogenetic examples. I did not spot computing time mentioned there. As usual with examples, my reservation is that the conclusions drawn for one particular analysis of one (three) particular example(s) does not convey a general method about the power and generality of a method. Even though I acknowledge that nested sampling is on principle operational in wide generality.

Bayesian model selection without evidence

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , on September 20, 2016 by xi'an

“The new method circumvents the challenges associated with accurate evidence calculations by computing posterior odds ratios using Bayesian parameter estimation”

One paper leading to another, I had a look at Hee et al. 2015 paper on Bayes factor estimation. The “novelty” stands in introducing the model index as an extra parameter in a single model encompassing all models under comparison, the “new” parameterisation being in (θ,n) rather than in θ. With the distinction that the parameter θ is now made of the union of all parameters across all models. Which reminds us very much of Carlin and Chib (1995) approach to the problem. (Peter Green in his Biometrika (1995) paper on reversible jump MCMC uses instead a direct sum of parameter spaces.) The authors indeed suggest simulating jointly (θ,n) in an MCMC or nested sampling scheme. Rather than being updated by arbitrary transforms as in Carlin and Chib (1995) the useless parameters from the other models are kept constant… The goal being to estimate P(n|D) the marginal posterior on the model index, aka the posterior probability of model n.

Now, I am quite not certain keeping the other parameter constants is a valid move: given a uniform prior on n and an equally uniform proposal, the acceptance probability simplifies into the regular Metropolis-Hastings ratio for model n. Hence the move is valid within model n. If not, I presume the previous pair (θ⁰,n⁰) is repeated. Wait!, actually, this is slightly more elaborate: if a new value of n, m, is proposed, then the acceptance ratio involves the posteriors for both n⁰ and m, possibly only the likelihoods when the proposal is the prior. So the move will directly depend on the likelihood ratio in this simplified case, which indicates the scheme could be correct after all. Except that this neglects the measure theoretic subtleties that led to reversible jump symmetry and hence makes me wonder. In other words, it follows exactly the same pattern as reversible jump without the constraints of the latter… Free lunch,  anyone?!