Archive for harmonic mean estimator

JSM 2015 [day #4]

Posted in pictures, Running, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2015 by xi'an

My first session today was Markov Chain Monte Carlo for Contemporary Statistical Applications with a heap of interesting directions in MCMC research! Now, without any possible bias (!), I would definitely nominate Murray Pollock (incidentally from Warwick) as the winner for best slides, funniest presentation, and most enjoyable accent! More seriously, the scalable Langevin algorithm he developed with Paul Fearnhead, Adam Johansen, and Gareth Roberts, is quite impressive in avoiding computing costly likelihoods. With of course caveats on which targets it applies to. Murali Haran showed a new proposal to handle high dimension random effect models by a projection trick that reduces the dimension. Natesh Pillai introduced us (or at least me!) to a spectral clustering that allowed for an automated partition of the target space, itself the starting point to his parallel MCMC algorithm. Quite exciting, even though I do not perceive partitions as an ideal solution to this problem. The final talk in the session was Galin Jones’ presentation of consistency results and conditions for multivariate quantities which is a surprisingly unexplored domain. MCMC is still alive and running!

The second MCMC session of the morning, Monte Carlo Methods Facing New Challenges in Statistics and Science, was equally diverse, with Lynn Kuo’s talk on the HAWK approach, where we discovered that harmonic mean estimators are still in use, e.g., in MrBayes software employed in phylogenetic inference. The proposal to replace this awful estimator that should never be seen again (!) was rather closely related to an earlier solution of us for marginal likelihood approximation, based there on a partition of the whole space rather than an HPD region in our case… Then, Michael Betancourt brilliantly acted as a proxy for Andrew to present the STAN language, with a flashy trailer he most recently designed. Featuring Andrew as the sole actor. And with great arguments for using it, including the potential to run expectation propagation (as a way of life). In fine, Faming Liang proposed a bootstrap subsampling version of the Metropolis-Hastings algorithm, where the likelihood acknowledging the resulting bias in the limiting distribution.

My first afternoon session was another entry on Statistical Phylogenetics, somewhat continued from yesterday’s session. Making me realised I had not seen a single talk on ABC for the entire meeting! The issues discussed in the session were linked with aligning sequences and comparing  many trees. Again in settings where likelihoods can be computed more or less explicitly. Without any expertise in the matter, I wondered at a construction that would turn all trees, like  into realizations of a continuous model. For instance by growing one branch at a time while removing the MRCA root… And maybe using a particle like method to grow trees. As an aside, Vladimir Minin told me yesterday night about genetic mutations that could switch on and off phenotypes repeatedly across generations… For instance  the ability to glow in the dark for species of deep sea fish.

When stating that I did not see a single talk about ABC, I omitted Steve Fienberg’s Fisher Lecture R.A. Fisher and the Statistical ABCs, keeping the morceau de choix for the end! Even though of course Steve did not mention the algorithm! A was for asymptotics, or ancilarity, B for Bayesian (or biducial??), C for causation (or cuffiency???)… Among other germs, I appreciated that Steve mentioned my great-grand father Darmois in connection with exponential families! And the connection with Jon Wellner’s LeCam Lecture from a few days ago. And reminding us that Savage was a Fisher lecturer himself. And that Fisher introduced fiducial distributions quite early. And for defending the Bayesian perspective. Steve also set some challenges like asymptotics for networks, Bayesian model assessment (I liked the notion of stepping out of the model), and randomization when experimenting with networks. And for big data issues. And for personalized medicine, building on his cancer treatment. No trace of the ABC algorithm, obviously, but a wonderful Fisher’s lecture, also most obviously!! Bravo, Steve, keep thriving!!!

Bayesian model averaging in astrophysics [guest post]

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2015 by xi'an

.[Following my posting of a misfiled 2013 blog, Ewan Cameron told me of the impact of this paper in starting his own blog and I asked him for a guest post, resulting in this analysis, much deeper than mine. No warning necessary this time!]

Back in February 2013 when “Bayesian Model Averaging in Astrophysics: A Review” by Parkinson & Liddle (hereafter PL13) first appeared on the arXiv I was a keen, young(ish) postdoc eager to get stuck into debates about anything and everything ‘astro-statistical’. And with its seemingly glaring flaws, PL13 was more grist to the mill. However, despite my best efforts on various forums I couldn’t get a decent fight started over the right way to do model averaging (BMA) in astronomy, so out of sheer frustration two months later I made my own soapbox to shout from at Another Astrostatistics Blog. Having seen PL13 reviewed recently here on Xian’s Og it feels like the right time to revisit the subject and reflect on where BMA in astronomy is today.

As pointed out to me back in 2013 by Tom Loredo, the act of Bayesian model averaging has been around much longer than its name; indeed an early astronomical example appears in Gregory & Loredo (1992) in which the posterior mean representation of an unknown signal is constructed for an astronomical “light-curve”, averaging over a set of constant and periodic candidate models. Nevertheless the wider popularisation of model averaging in astronomy has only recently taken place through a variety of applications in cosmology: e.g. Liddle, Mukherjee, Parkinson & Wang (2006) and Vardanyan, Trotta & Silk (2011).

In contrast to earlier studies like Gregory & Loredo (1992)—or the classic review on BMA by Hoeting et al. (1999)—in which the target of model averaging is typically either a utility function, a set of future observations, or a latent parameter of the observational process (e.g. the unknown “light-curve” shape) shared naturally by all competing models, the proposal of cosmological BMA studies is to produce a model-averaged version of the posterior for a given ‘shared’ parameter: a so-called “model-averaged PDF”. This proposal didn’t sit well with me back in 2013, and it still doesn’t sit well with me today. Philosophically: without a model a parameter has no meaning, so why should we want to seek meaning in the marginalised distribution of a parameter over an entire set of models? And, practically: to put it another way, without knowing the model ‘label’ to which a given mass of model-averaged parameter probability belongs there’s nothing much useful we can do with this ‘PDF’: nothing much we can say about the data we’ve just analysed and nothing much we can say about future experiments. Whereas the space of the observed data is shared automatically by all competing models, it seems to me to be somehow “un-Bayesian” to place the further restriction that the parameters of separate models share the same scale and topology. I say “un-Bayesian” since this mode of model averaging suggests a formulation of the parameter space + prior pairing stronger than the statement of one’s prior beliefs for the distribution of observable data given the model. But I would be happy to hear arguments from the other side in the comments box below … ! Continue reading

reflections on the probability space induced by moment conditions with implications for Bayesian Inference [refleXions]

Posted in Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2014 by xi'an

“The main finding is that if the moment functions have one of the properties of a pivotal, then the assertion of a distribution on moment functions coupled with a proper prior does permit Bayesian inference. Without the semi-pivotal condition, the assertion of a distribution for moment functions either partially or completely specifies the prior.” (p.1)

Ron Gallant will present this paper at the Conference in honour of Christian Gouréroux held next week at Dauphine and I have been asked to discuss it. What follows is a collection of notes I made while reading the paper , rather than a coherent discussion, to come later. Hopefully prior to the conference.

The difficulty I have with the approach presented therein stands as much with the presentation as with the contents. I find it difficult to grasp the assumptions behind the model(s) and the motivations for only considering a moment and its distribution. Does it all come down to linking fiducial distributions with Bayesian approaches? In which case I am as usual sceptical about the ability to impose an arbitrary distribution on an arbitrary transform of the pair (x,θ), where x denotes the data. Rather than a genuine prior x likelihood construct. But I bet this is mostly linked with my lack of understanding of the notion of structural models.

“We are concerned with situations where the structural model does not imply exogeneity of θ, or one prefers not to rely on an assumption of exogeneity, or one cannot construct a likelihood at all due to the complexity of the model, or one does not trust the numerical approximations needed to construct a likelihood.” (p.4)

As often with econometrics papers, this notion of structural model sets me astray: does this mean any latent variable model or an incompletely defined model, and if so why is it incompletely defined? From a frequentist perspective anything random is not a parameter. The term exogeneity also hints at this notion of the parameter being not truly a parameter, but including latent variables and maybe random effects. Reading further (p.7) drives me to understand the structural model as defined by a moment condition, in the sense that


has a unique solution in θ under the true model. However the focus then seems to make a major switch as Gallant considers the distribution of a pivotal quantity like

Z=\sqrt{n} W(\mathbf{x},\theta)^{-\frac{1}{2}} m(\mathbf{x},\theta)

as induced by the joint distribution on (x,θ), hence conversely inducing constraints on this joint, as well as an associated conditional. Which is something I have trouble understanding, First, where does this assumed distribution on Z stem from? And, second, exchanging randomness of terms in a random variable as if it was a linear equation is a pretty sure way to produce paradoxes and measure theoretic difficulties.

The purely mathematical problem itself is puzzling: if one knows the distribution of the transform Z=Z(X,Λ), what does that imply on the joint distribution of (X,Λ)? It seems unlikely this will induce a single prior and/or a single likelihood… It is actually more probable that the distribution one arbitrarily selects on m(x,θ) is incompatible with a joint on (x,θ), isn’t it?

“The usual computational method is MCMC (Markov chain Monte Carlo) for which the best known reference in econometrics is Chernozhukov and Hong (2003).” (p.6)

While I never heard of this reference before, it looks like a 50 page survey and may be sufficient for an introduction to MCMC methods for econometricians. What I do not get though is the connection between this reference to MCMC and the overall discussion of constructing priors (or not) out of fiducial distributions. The author also suggests using MCMC to produce the MAP estimate but this always stroke me as inefficient (unless one uses our SAME algorithm of course).

“One can also compute the marginal likelihood from the chain (Newton and Raftery (1994)), which is used for Bayesian model comparison.” (p.22)

Not the best solution to rely on harmonic means for marginal likelihoods…. Definitely not. While the author actually uses the stabilised version (15) of Newton and Raftery (1994) estimator, which in retrospect looks much like a bridge sampling estimator of sorts, it remains dangerously close to the original [harmonic mean solution] especially for a vague prior. And it only works when the likelihood is available in closed form.

“The MCMC chains were comprised of 100,000 draws well past the point where transients died off.” (p.22)

I wonder if the second statement (with a very nice image of those dying transients!) is intended as a consequence of the first one or independently.

“A common situation that requires consideration of the notions that follow is that deriving the likelihood from a structural model is analytically intractable and one cannot verify that the numerical approximations one would have to make to circumvent the intractability are sufficiently accurate.” (p.7)

This then is a completely different business, namely that defining a joint distribution by mean of moment equations prevents regular Bayesian inference because the likelihood is not available. This is more exciting because (i) there are alternative available! From ABC to INLA (maybe) to EP to variational Bayes (maybe). And beyond. In particular, the moment equations are strongly and even insistently suggesting that empirical likelihood techniques could be well-suited to this setting. And (ii) it is no longer a mathematical worry: there exist a joint distribution on m(x,θ), induced by a (or many) joint distribution on (x,θ). So the question of finding whether or not it induces a single proper prior on θ becomes relevant. But, if I want to use ABC, being given the distribution of m(x,θ) seems to mean I can only generate new values of this transform while missing a natural distance between observations and pseudo-observations. Still, I entertain lingering doubts that this is the meaning of the study. Where does the joint distribution come from..?!

“Typically C is coarse in the sense that it does not contain all the Borel sets (…)  The probability space cannot be used for Bayesian inference”

My understanding of that part is that defining a joint on m(x,θ) is not always enough to deduce a (unique) posterior on θ, which is fine and correct, but rather anticlimactic. This sounds to be what Gallant calls a “partial specification of the prior” (p.9).

Overall, after this linear read, I remain very much puzzled by the statistical (or Bayesian) implications of the paper . The fact that the moment conditions are central to the approach would once again induce me to check the properties of an alternative approach like empirical likelihood.

density normalization for MCMC algorithms

Posted in Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , on November 6, 2014 by xi'an

Another paper addressing the estimation of the normalising constant and the wealth of available solutions just came out on arXiv, with the full title of “Target density normalization for Markov chain Monte Carlo algorithms“, written by Allen Caldwell and Chang Liu. (I became aware of it by courtesy of Ewan Cameron, as it appeared in the physics section of arXiv. It is actually a wee bit annoying that papers in the subcategory “Data Analysis, Statistics and Probability” of physics do not get an automated reposting on the statistics lists…)

In this paper, the authors compare three approaches to the problem of finding

\mathfrak{I} = \int_\Omega f(\lambda)\,\text{d}\lambda

when the density f is unormalised, i.e., in more formal terms, when f is proportional to a probability density (and available):

  1. an “arithmetic mean”, which is an importance sampler based on (a) reducing the integration volume to a neighbourhood ω of the global mode. This neighbourhood is chosen as an hypercube and the importance function turns out to be the uniform over this hypercube. The corresponding estimator is then a rescaled version of the average of f over uniform simulations in ω.
  2.  an “harmonic mean”, of all choices!, with again an integration over the neighbourhood ω of the global mode in order to avoid the almost sure infinite variance of harmonic mean estimators.
  3. a Laplace approximation, using the target at the mode and the Hessian at the mode as well.

The paper then goes to comparing those three solutions on a few examples, demonstrating how the diameter of the hypercube can be calibrated towards a minimum (estimated) uncertainty. The rather anticlimactic conclusion is that the arithmetic mean is the most reliable solution as harmonic means may fail in larger dimension and more importantly fail to signal its failure, while Laplace approximations only approximate well quasi-Gaussian densities…

What I find most interesting in this paper is the idea of using only one part of the integration space to compute the integral, even though it is not exactly new. Focussing on a specific region ω has pros and cons, the pros being that the reduction to a modal region reduces needs for absolute MCMC convergence and helps in selecting alternative proposals and also prevents from the worst consequences of using a dreaded harmonic mean, the cons being that the region needs be well-identified, which means requirements on the MCMC kernel, and that the estimate is a product of two estimates, the frequency being driven by a Binomial noise.  I also like very much the idea of calibrating the diameter Δof the hypercube ex-post by estimating the uncertainty.

As an aside, the paper mentions most of the alternative solutions I just presented in my Monte Carlo graduate course two days ago (like nested or bridge or Rao-Blackwellised sampling, including our proposal with Darren Wraith), but dismisses them as not “directly applicable in an MCMC setting”, i.e., without modifying this setting. I unsurprisingly dispute this labelling, both because something like the Laplace approximation requires extra-work on the MCMC output (and once done this work can lead to advanced Laplace methods like INLA) and because other methods could be considered as well (for instance, bridge sampling over several hypercubes). As shown in the recent paper by Mathieu Gerber and Nicolas Chopin (soon to be discussed at the RSS!), MCqMC has also become a feasible alternative that would compete well with the methods studied in this paper.

Overall, this is a paper that comes in a long list of papers on constant approximations. I do not find the Markov chain of MCMC aspect particularly compelling or specific, once the effective sample size is accounted for. It would be nice to find generic ways of optimising the visit to the hypercube ω and to estimate efficiently the weight of ω. The comparison is solely run over examples, but they all rely on a proper characterisation of the hypercube and the ability to simulate efficiently f over that hypercube.

Split Sampling: expectations, normalisation and rare events

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , on January 27, 2014 by xi'an

Just before Christmas (a year ago), John Birge, Changgee Chang, and Nick Polson arXived a paper with the above title. Split sampling is presented a a tool conceived to handle rare event probabilities, written in this paper as


where π is the prior and L the likelihood, m being a large enough bound to make the probability small. However, given John Skilling’s representation of the marginal likelihood as the integral of the Z(m)’s, this simulation technique also applies to the approximation of the evidence. The paper refers from the start to nested sampling as a motivation for this method, presumably not as a way to run nested sampling, which was created as a tool for evidence evaluation, but as a competitor. Nested sampling may indeed face difficulties in handling the coverage of the higher likelihood regions under the prior and it is an approximative method, as we detailed in our earlier paper with Nicolas Chopin. The difference between nested and split sampling is that split sampling adds a distribution ω(m) on the likelihood levels m. If pairs (x,m) can be efficiently generated by MCMC for the target


the marginal density of m can then be approximated by Rao-Blackwellisation. From which the authors derive an estimate of Z(m), since the marginal is actually proportional to ω(m)Z(m). (Because of the Rao-Blackwell argument, I wonder how much this differs from Chib’s 1995 method, i.e. if the split sampling estimator could be expressed as a special case of Chib’s estimator.) The resulting estimator of the marginal also requires a choice of ω(m) such that the associated cdf can be computed analytically. More generally, the choice of ω(m) impacts the quality of the approximation since it determines how often and easily high likelihood regions will be hit. Note also that the conditional π(x|m) is the same as in nested sampling, hence may run into difficulties for complex likelihoods or large datasets.

When reading the beginning of the paper, the remark that “the chain will visit each level roughly uniformly” (p.13) made me wonder at a possible correspondence with the Wang-Landau estimator. Until I read the reference to Jacob and Ryder (2012) on page 16. Once again, I wonder at a stronger link between both papers since the Wang-Landau approach aims at optimising the exploration of the simulation space towards a flat histogram. See for instance Figure 2.

The following part of the paper draws a comparison with both nested sampling and the product estimator of Fishman (1994). I do not fully understand the consequences of the equivalence between those estimators and the split sampling estimator for specific choices of the weight function ω(m). Indeed, it seemed to me that the main point was to draw from a joint density on (x,m) to avoid the difficulties of exploring separately each level set. And also avoiding the approximation issues of nested sampling. As a side remark, the fact that the harmonic mean estimator occurs at several points of the paper makes me worried. The qualification of “poor Monte Carlo error variances properties” is an understatement for the harmonic mean estimator, as it generally has infinite variance and it hence should not be used at all, even as a starting point. The paper does not elaborate much about the cross-entropy method, despite using an example from Rubinstein and Kroese (2004).

In conclusion, an interesting paper that made me think anew about the nested sampling approach, which keeps its fascination over the years! I will most likely use it to build an MSc thesis project this summer in Warwick.

On the use of marginal posteriors in marginal likelihood estimation via importance-sampling

Posted in R, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2013 by xi'an

Perrakis, Ntzoufras, and Tsionas just arXived a paper on marginal likelihood (evidence) approximation (with the above title). The idea behind the paper is to base importance sampling for the evidence on simulations from the product of the (block) marginal posterior distributions. Those simulations can be directly derived from an MCMC output by randomly permuting the components. The only critical issue is to find good approximations to the marginal posterior densities. This is handled in the paper either by normal approximations or by Rao-Blackwell estimates. the latter being rather costly since one importance weight involves B.L computations, where B is the number of blocks and L the number of samples used in the Rao-Blackwell estimates. The time factor does not seem to be included in the comparison studies run by the authors, although it would seem necessary when comparing scenarii.

After a standard regression example (that did not include Chib’s solution in the comparison), the paper considers  2- and 3-component mixtures. The discussion centres around label switching (of course) and the deficiencies of Chib’s solution against the current method and Neal’s reference. The study does not include averaging Chib’s solution over permutations as in Berkoff et al. (2003) and Marin et al. (2005), an approach that does eliminate the bias. Especially for a small number of components. Instead, the authors stick to the log(k!) correction, despite it being known for being quite unreliable (depending on the amount of overlap between modes). The final example is Diggle et al. (1995) longitudinal Poisson regression with random effects on epileptic patients. The appeal of this model is the unavailability of the integrated likelihood which implies either estimating it by Rao-Blackwellisation or including the 58 latent variables in the analysis.  (There is no comparison with other methods.)

As a side note, among the many references provided by this paper, I did not find trace of Skilling’s nested sampling or of safe harmonic means (as exposed in our own survey on the topic).

summary statistics for ABC model choice

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2013 by xi'an

countryside near Kenilworth, England, March 5, 2013A few days ago, Dennis Prangle, Paul Fernhead, and their co-authors from New Zealand have posted on arXiv their (long-awaited) study of the selection of summary statistics for ABC model choice. And I read it during my trip to England, in trains and planes, if not when strolling in the beautiful English countryside as above.

As posted several times on this ‘Og, the crux of the analysis is that the Bayes factor is a good type of summary when comparing two models, this result extending to more model by considering instead the vector of evidences. As in the initial Read Paper by Fearnhead and Prangle, there is no true optimality in using the Bayes factor or vector of evidences, strictly speaking, besides the fact that the vector of evidences is minimal sufficient for the marginal models (integrating out the parameters). (This was a point made in my discussion.) The implementation of the principle is similar to this Read Paper setting as well: run a pilot ABC simulation, estimate the vector of evidences, and re-run the main ABC simulation using this estimate as the summary statistic. The paper contains a simulation study using some of our examples (in Marin et al., 2012), as well as an application to genetic bacterial data. Continue reading


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