## en route to Boston!

Posted in pictures, Running, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , on April 29, 2017 by xi'an

## beyond objectivity, subjectivity, and other ‘bjectivities

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2017 by xi'an

Here is my discussion of Gelman and Hennig at the Royal Statistical Society, which I am about to deliver!

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, Travel, University life, Wines with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2017 by xi'an

Andrew Gelman and Christian Hennig will give a Read Paper presentation next Wednesday, April 12, 5pm, at the Royal Statistical Society, London, on their paper “Beyond subjective and objective in statistics“. Which I hope to attend and else to write a discussion. Since the discussion (to published in Series A) is open to everyone, I strongly encourage ‘Og’s readers to take a look at the paper and the “radical” views therein to hopefully contribute to this discussion. Either as a written discussion or as comments on this very post.

## Validity and the foundations of statistical inference

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2016 by xi'an

Natesh pointed out to me this recent arXival with a somewhat grandiose abstract:

In this paper, we argue that the primary goal of the foundations of statistics is to provide data analysts with a set of guiding principles that are guaranteed to lead to valid statistical inference. This leads to two new questions: “what is valid statistical inference?” and “do existing methods achieve this?” Towards answering these questions, this paper makes three contributions. First, we express statistical inference as a process of converting observations into degrees of belief, and we give a clear mathematical definition of what it means for statistical inference to be valid. Second, we evaluate existing approaches Bayesian and frequentist approaches relative to this definition and conclude that, in general, these fail to provide valid statistical inference. This motivates a new way of thinking, and our third contribution is a demonstration that the inferential model framework meets the proposed criteria for valid and prior-free statistical inference, thereby solving perhaps the most important unsolved problem in statistics.

Since solving the “most important unsolved problem in statistics” sounds worth pursuing, I went and checked the paper‘s contents.

“To us, the primary goal of the foundations of statistics is to provide a set of guiding principles that, if followed, will guarantee validity of the resulting inference. Our motivation for writing this paper is to be clear about what is meant by valid inference and to provide the necessary principles to help data analysts achieve validity.”

Which can be interpreted in so many ways that it is somewhat meaningless…

“…if real subjective prior information is available, we recommend using it. However, there is an expanding collection of work (e.g., machine learning, etc) that takes the perspective that no real prior information is available. Even a large part of the literature claiming to be Bayesian has abandoned the interpretation of the prior as a serious part of the model, opting for “default” prior that “works.” Our choice to omit a prior from the model is not for the (misleading) purpose of being “objective”—subjectivity is necessary—but, rather, for the purpose of exploring what can be done in cases where a fully satisfactory prior is not available, to see what improvements can be made over the status quo.”

This is a pretty traditional criticism of the Bayesian approach, namely that if a “true” prior is provided (by whom?) then it is optimal to use it. But this amounts to turn the prior into another piece of the sampling distribution and is not in my opinion a Bayesian argument! Most of the criticisms in the paper are directed at objective Bayes approaches, with the surprising conclusion that, because there exist cases where no matching prior is available, “the objective Bayesian approach [cannot] be considered as a general framework for scientific inference.” (p.9)

Another section argues that a Bayesian modelling cannot describe a state of total ignorance. This is formally correct, which is why there is no such thing as a non-informative or the non-informative prior, as often discussed here, but is this truly relevant, in that the inference problem contains one way or another information about the parameter, for instance through a loss function or a pseudo-likelihood.

“This is a desirable property that most existing methods lack.”

The proposal central to the paper thesis is to replace posterior probabilities by belief functions b(.|X), called statistical inference, that are interpreted as measures of evidence about subsets A of the parameter space. If not necessarily as probabilities. This is not very novel, witness the works of Dempster, Shafer and subsequent researchers. And not very much used outside Bayesian and fiducial statistics because of the mostly impossible task of defining a function over all subsets of the parameter space. Because of the subjectivity of such “beliefs”, they will be “valid” only if they are well-calibrated in the sense of b(A|X) being sub-uniform, that is, more concentrated near zero than a uniform variate (i.e., small) under the alternative, i.e. when θ is not in A. At this stage, since this is a mix of a minimax and proper coverage condition, my interest started to quickly wane… Especially because the sub-uniformity condition is highly demanding, if leading to controls over the Type I error and the frequentist coverage. As often, I wonder at the meaning of a calibration property obtained over all realisations of the random variable and all values of the parameter. So for me stability is neither “desirable” nor “essential”. Overall, I have increasing difficulties in perceiving proper coverage as a relevant property. Which has no stronger or weaker meaning that the coverage derived from a Bayesian construction.

“…frequentism does not provide any guidance for selecting a particular rule or procedure.”

I agree with this assessment, which means that there is no such thing as frequentist inference, but rather a philosophy for assessing procedures. That the Gleser-Hwang paradox invalidates this philosophy sounds a bit excessive, however. Especially when the bounded nature of Bayesian credible intervals is also analysed as a failure. A more relevant criticism is the lack of directives for picking procedures.

“…we are the first to recognize that the belief function’s properties are necessary in order for the inferential output to satisfy the required validity property”

The construction of the “inferential model” proposed by the authors offers similarities withn fiducial inference, in that it builds upon the representation of the observable X as X=a(θ,U). With further constraints on the function a() to ensure the validity condition holds… An interesting point is that the functional connection X=a(θ,U) means that the nature of U changes once X is observed, albeit in a delicate manner outside a Bayesian framework. When illustrated on the Gleser-Hwang paradox, the resolution proceeds from an arbitrary choice of a one-dimensional summary, though. (As I am reading the paper, I realise it builds on other and earlier papers by the authors, papers that I cannot read for lack of time. I must have listned to a talk by one of the authors last year at JSM as this rings a bell. Somewhat.) In conclusion of a quick Sunday afternoon read, I am not convinced by the arguments in the paper and even less by the impression of a remaining arbitrariness in setting the resulting procedure.

## 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

## how individualistic should statistics be?

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2015 by xi'an

Keli Liu and Xiao-Li Meng completed a paper on the very nature of inference, to appear in The Annual Review of Statistics and Its Application. This paper or chapter is addressing a fundamental (and foundational) question on drawing inference based a sample on a new observation. That is, in making prediction. To what extent should the characteristics of the sample used for that prediction resemble those of the future observation? In his 1921 book, A Treatise on Probability, Keynes thought this similarity (or individualisation) should be pushed to its extreme, which led him to somewhat conclude on the impossibility of statistics and never to return to the field again. Certainly missing the incoming possibility of comparing models and selecting variables. And not building so much on the “all models are wrong” tenet. On the contrary, classical statistics use the entire data available and the associated model to run the prediction, including Bayesian statistics, although it is less clear how to distinguish between data and control there. Liu & Meng debate about the possibility of creating controls from the data alone. Or “alone” as the model behind always plays a capital role.

“Bayes and Frequentism are two ends of the same spectrum—a spectrum defined in terms of relevance and robustness. The nominal contrast between them (…) is a red herring.”

The paper makes for an exhilarating if definitely challenging read. With a highly witty writing style. If only because the perspective is unusual, to say the least!, and requires constant mental contortions to frame the assertions into more traditional terms.  For instance, I first thought that Bayesian procedures were in agreement with the ultimate conditioning approach, since it conditions on the observables and nothing else (except for the model!). Upon reflection, I am not so convinced that there is such a difference with the frequentist approach in the (specific) sense that they both take advantage of the entire dataset. Either from the predictive or from the plug-in distribution. It all boils down to how one defines “control”.

“Probability and randomness, so tightly yoked in our minds, are in fact distinct concepts (…) at the end of the day, probability is essentially a tool for bookkeeping, just like the abacus.”

Some sentences from the paper made me think of ABC, even though I am not trying to bring everything back to ABC!, as drawing controls is the nature of the ABC game. ABC draws samples or control from the prior predictive and only keeps those for which the relevant aspects (or the summary statistics) agree with those of the observed data. Which opens similar questions about the validity and precision of the resulting inference, as well as the loss of information due to the projection over the summary statistics. While ABC is not mentioned in the paper, it can be used as a benchmark to walk through it.

“In the words of Jack Kiefer, we need to distinguish those problems with `luck data’ from those with `unlucky data’.”

I liked very much recalling discussions we had with George Casella and Costas Goutis in Cornell about frequentist conditional inference, with the memory of Jack Kiefer still lingering around. However, I am not so excited about the processing of models here since, from what I understand in the paper (!), the probabilistic model behind the statistical analysis must be used to some extent in producing the control case and thus cannot be truly assessed with a critical eye. For instance, of which use is the mean square error when the model behind is unable to produce the observed data? In particular, the variability of this mean squared error is directly driven by this model. Similarly the notion of ancillaries is completely model-dependent. In the classification diagrams opposing robustness to relevance, all methods included therein are parametric. While non-parametric types of inference could provide a reference or a calibration ruler, at the very least.

Also, by continuously and maybe a wee bit heavily referring to the doctor-and-patient analogy, the paper is somewhat confusing as to which parts are analogy and which parts are methodology and to which type of statistical problem is covered by the discussion (sometimes it feels like all problems and sometimes like medical trials).

“The need to deliver individualized assessments of uncertainty are more pressing than ever.”

A final question leads us to an infinite regress: if the statistician needs to turn to individualized inference, at which level of individuality should the statistician be assessed? And who is going to provide the controls then? In any case, this challenging paper is definitely worth reading by (only mature?) statisticians to ponder about the nature of the game!