Archive for Henri Poincaré

10 great ideas about chance [book preview]

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2017 by xi'an

[As I happened to be a reviewer of this book by Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms, I had the opportunity (and privilege!) to go through its earlier version. Here are the [edited] comments I sent back to PUP and the authors about this earlier version. All in  all, a terrific book!!!]

The historical introduction (“measurement”) of this book is most interesting, especially its analogy of chance with length. I would have appreciated a connection earlier than Cardano, like some of the Greek philosophers even though I gladly discovered there that Cardano was not only responsible for the closed form solutions to the third degree equation. I would also have liked to see more comments on the vexing issue of equiprobability: we all spend (if not waste) hours in the classroom explaining to (or arguing with) students why their solution is not correct. And they sometimes never get it! [And we sometimes get it wrong as well..!] Why is such a simple concept so hard to explicit? In short, but this is nothing but a personal choice, I would have made the chapter more conceptual and less chronologically historical.

“Coherence is again a question of consistent evaluations of a betting arrangement that can be implemented in alternative ways.” (p.46)

The second chapter, about Frank Ramsey, is interesting, if only because it puts this “man of genius” back under the spotlight when he has all but been forgotten. (At least in my circles.) And for joining probability and utility together. And for postulating that probability can be derived from expectations rather than the opposite. Even though betting or gambling has a (negative) stigma in many cultures. At least gambling for money, since most of our actions involve some degree of betting. But not in a rational or reasoned manner. (Of course, this is not a mathematical but rather a psychological objection.) Further, the justification through betting is somewhat tautological in that it assumes probabilities are true probabilities from the start. For instance, the Dutch book example on p.39 produces a gain of .2 only if the probabilities are correct.

> gain=rep(0,1e4)
> for (t in 1:1e4){
+ p=rexp(3);p=p/sum(p)
+ gain[t]=(p[1]*(1-.6)+p[2]*(1-.2)+p[3]*(.9-1))/sum(p)}
> hist(gain)

As I made it clear at the BFF4 conference last Spring, I now realise I have never really adhered to the Dutch book argument. This may be why I find the chapter somewhat unbalanced with not enough written on utilities and too much on Dutch books.

“The force of accumulating evidence made it less and less plausible to hold that subjective probability is, in general, approximate psychology.” (p.55)

A chapter on “psychology” may come as a surprise, but I feel a posteriori that it is appropriate. Most of it is about the Allais paradox. Plus entries on Ellesberg’s distinction between risk and uncertainty, with only the former being quantifiable by “objective” probabilities. And on Tversky’s and Kahneman’s distinction between heuristics, and the framing effect, i.e., how the way propositions are expressed impacts the choice of decision makers. However, it is leaving me unclear about the conclusion that the fact that people behave irrationally should not prevent a reliance on utility theory. Unclear because when taking actions involving other actors their potentially irrational choices should also be taken into account. (This is mostly nitpicking.)

“This is Bernoulli’s swindle. Try to make it precise and it falls apart. The conditional probabilities go in different directions, the desired intervals are of different quantities, and the desired probabilities are different probabilities.” (p.66)

The next chapter (“frequency”) is about Bernoulli’s Law of Large numbers and the stabilisation of frequencies, with von Mises making it the basis of his approach to probability. And Birkhoff’s extension which is capital for the development of stochastic processes. And later for MCMC. I like the notions of “disreputable twin” (p.63) and “Bernoulli’s swindle” about the idea that “chance is frequency”. The authors call the identification of probabilities as limits of frequencies Bernoulli‘s swindle, because it cannot handle zero probability events. With a nice link with the testing fallacy of equating rejection of the null with acceptance of the alternative. And an interesting description as to how Venn perceived the fallacy but could not overcome it: “If Venn’s theory appears to be full of holes, it is to his credit that he saw them himself.” The description of von Mises’ Kollectiven [and the welcome intervention of Abraham Wald] clarifies my previous and partial understanding of the notion, although I am unsure it is that clear for all potential readers. I also appreciate the connection with the very notion of randomness which has not yet found I fear a satisfactory definition. This chapter asks more (interesting) questions than it brings answers (to those or others). But enough, this is a brilliant chapter!

“…a random variable, the notion that Kac found mysterious in early expositions of probability theory.” (p.87)

Chapter 5 (“mathematics”) is very important [from my perspective] in that it justifies the necessity to associate measure theory with probability if one wishes to evolve further than urns and dices. To entitle Kolmogorov to posit his axioms of probability. And to define properly conditional probabilities as random variables (as my third students fail to realise). I enjoyed very much reading this chapter, but it may prove difficult to read for readers with no or little background in measure (although some advanced mathematical details have vanished from the published version). Still, this chapter constitutes a strong argument for preserving measure theory courses in graduate programs. As an aside, I find it amazing that mathematicians (even Kac!) had not at first realised the connection between measure theory and probability (p.84), but maybe not so amazing given the difficulty many still have with the notion of conditional probability. (Now, I would have liked to see some description of Borel’s paradox when it is mentioned (p.89).

“Nothing hangs on a flat prior (…) Nothing hangs on a unique quantification of ignorance.” (p.115)

The following chapter (“inverse inference”) is about Thomas Bayes and his posthumous theorem, with an introduction setting the theorem at the centre of the Hume-Price-Bayes triangle. (It is nice that the authors include a picture of the original version of the essay, as the initial title is much more explicit than the published version!) A short coverage, in tune with the fact that Bayes only contributed a twenty-plus paper to the field. And to be logically followed by a second part [formerly another chapter] on Pierre-Simon Laplace, both parts focussing on the selection of prior distributions on the probability of a Binomial (coin tossing) distribution. Emerging into a discussion of the position of statistics within or even outside mathematics. (And the assertion that Fisher was the Einstein of Statistics on p.120 may be disputed by many readers!)

“So it is perfectly legitimate to use Bayes’ mathematics even if we believe that chance does not exist.” (p.124)

The seventh chapter is about Bruno de Finetti with his astounding representation of exchangeable sequences as being mixtures of iid sequences. Defining an implicit prior on the side. While the description sticks to binary events, it gets quickly more advanced with the notion of partial and Markov exchangeability. With the most interesting connection between those exchangeabilities and sufficiency. (I would however disagree with the statement that “Bayes was the father of parametric Bayesian analysis” [p.133] as this is extrapolating too much from the Essay.) My next remark may be non-sensical, but I would have welcomed an entry at the end of the chapter on cases where the exchangeability representation fails, for instance those cases when there is no sufficiency structure to exploit in the model. A bonus to the chapter is a description of Birkhoff’s ergodic theorem “as a generalisation of de Finetti” (p..134-136), plus half a dozen pages of appendices on more technical aspects of de Finetti’s theorem.

“We want random sequences to pass all tests of randomness, with tests being computationally implemented”. (p.151)

The eighth chapter (“algorithmic randomness”) comes (again!) as a surprise as it centres on the character of Per Martin-Löf who is little known in statistics circles. (The chapter starts with a picture of him with the iconic Oberwolfach sculpture in the background.) Martin-Löf’s work concentrates on the notion of randomness, in a mathematical rather than probabilistic sense, and on the algorithmic consequences. I like very much the section on random generators. Including a mention of our old friend RANDU, the 16 planes random generator! This chapter connects with Chapter 4 since von Mises also attempted to define a random sequence. To the point it feels slightly repetitive (for instance Jean Ville is mentioned in rather similar terms in both chapters). Martin-Löf’s central notion is computability, which forces us to visit Turing’s machine. And its role in the undecidability of some logical statements. And Church’s recursive functions. (With a link not exploited here to the notion of probabilistic programming, where one language is actually named Church, after Alonzo Church.) Back to Martin-Löf, (I do not see how his test for randomness can be implemented on a real machine as the whole test requires going through the entire sequence: since this notion connects with von Mises’ Kollektivs, I am missing the point!) And then Kolmororov is brought back with his own notion of complexity (which is also Chaitin’s and Solomonov’s). Overall this is a pretty hard chapter both because of the notions it introduces and because I do not feel it is completely conclusive about the notion(s) of randomness. A side remark about casino hustlers and their “exploitation” of weak random generators: I believe Jeff Rosenthal has a similar if maybe simpler story in his book about Canadian lotteries.

“Does quantum mechanics need a different notion of probability? We think not.” (p.180)

The penultimate chapter is about Boltzmann and the notion of “physical chance”. Or statistical physics. A story that involves Zermelo and Poincaré, And Gibbs, Maxwell and the Ehrenfests. The discussion focus on the definition of probability in a thermodynamic setting, opposing time frequencies to space frequencies. Which requires ergodicity and hence Birkhoff [no surprise, this is about ergodicity!] as well as von Neumann. This reaches a point where conjectures in the theory are yet open. What I always (if presumably naïvely) find fascinating in this topic is the fact that ergodicity operates without requiring randomness. Dynamical systems can enjoy ergodic theorem, while being completely deterministic.) This chapter also discusses quantum mechanics, which main tenet requires probability. Which needs to be defined, from a frequency or a subjective perspective. And the Bernoulli shift that brings us back to random generators. The authors briefly mention the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox, which sounds more metaphysical than mathematical in my opinion, although they get to great details to explain Bell’s conclusion that quantum theory leads to a mathematical impossibility (but they lost me along the way). Except that we “are left with quantum probabilities” (p.183). And the chapter leaves me still uncertain as to why statistical mechanics carries the label statistical. As it does not seem to involve inference at all.

“If you don’t like calling these ignorance priors on the ground that they may be sharply peaked, call them nondogmatic priors or skeptical priors, because these priors are quite in the spirit of ancient skepticism.” (p.199)

And then the last chapter (“induction”) brings us back to Hume and the 18th Century, where somehow “everything” [including statistics] started! Except that Hume’s strong scepticism (or skepticism) makes induction seemingly impossible. (A perspective with which I agree to some extent, if not to Keynes’ extreme version, when considering for instance financial time series as stationary. And a reason why I do not see the criticisms contained in the Black Swan as pertinent because they savage normality while accepting stationarity.) The chapter rediscusses Bayes’ and Laplace’s contributions to inference as well, challenging Hume’s conclusion of the impossibility to finer. Even though the representation of ignorance is not unique (p.199). And the authors call again for de Finetti’s representation theorem as bypassing the issue of whether or not there is such a thing as chance. And escaping inductive scepticism. (The section about Goodman’s grue hypothesis is somewhat distracting, maybe because I have always found it quite artificial and based on a linguistic pun rather than a logical contradiction.) The part about (Richard) Jeffrey is quite new to me but ends up quite abruptly! Similarly about Popper and his exclusion of induction. From this chapter, I appreciated very much the section on skeptical priors and its analysis from a meta-probabilist perspective.

There is no conclusion to the book, but to end up with a chapter on induction seems quite appropriate. (But there is an appendix as a probability tutorial, mentioning Monte Carlo resolutions. Plus notes on all chapters. And a commented bibliography.) Definitely recommended!

[Disclaimer about potential self-plagiarism: this post or an edited version will eventually appear in my Books Review section in CHANCE. As appropriate for a book about Chance!]

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

Red & Black Light [Ibrahim Maalouf]

Posted in Books, Mountains, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , on December 10, 2016 by xi'an

This morning I heard the trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf speak on the French national public radio on his music, concerts, improvisation, Charlie friends, Poincaré (on intuition), and then I came upon this video, trailer for the movie In the Forests of Siberia, stunning. Especially the scene of the truck on the frozen lake with veins of white. And great trumpet music. (Admittedly biased views, since trumpet was my instrument.)

optimal simulation on a convex set

Posted in R, Statistics with tags , , , , , , on February 4, 2016 by xi'an

La Défense, from Paris-Dauphine, May 2009This morning, we had a jam session at the maths department of Paris-Dauphine where a few researchers & colleagues of mine presented their field of research to the whole department. Very interesting despite or thanks to the variety of topics, with forays into the three-body problem(s) [and Poincaré‘s mistake], mean fields for Nash equilibrium (or how to exit a movie theatre), approximate losses in machine learning and so on. Somehow, there was some unity as well through randomness, convexity and optimal transport. One talk close to my own interests was obviously the study of simulation within convex sets by Joseph Lehec from Paris-Dauphine [and Sébastien Bubeck & Ronen Eldan] as they had established a total variation convergence result at a speed only increasing polynomially with the dimension.  The underlying simulation algorithm is rather theoretical in that it involves random walk (or Langevin corrected) moves where any excursion outside the convex support is replaced with its projection on the set. Projection that may prove pretty expensive to compute if the convex set is defined for instance as the intersection of many hyperplanes. So I do not readily see how the scheme can be recycled into a competitor to a Metropolis-Hastings solution in that the resulting chain hits the boundary from time to time. With the same frequency over iterations. A solution is to instead use Metropolis-Hastings of course, while another one is to bounce on the boundary and then correct by Metropolis-Hastings… The optimal scales in the three different cases are quite different, from √d in the Metropolis-Hastings cases to d√d in the projection case. (I did not follow the bouncing option to the end, as it lacks a normalising constant.) Here is a quick and not particularly helpful comparison of the exploration patterns of both approaches in dimension 50 for the unit sphere and respective scales of 10/d√d [blue] and 1/√d [gold].

beyond subjective and objective in Statistics

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2015 by xi'an

“At the level of discourse, we would like to move beyond a subjective vs. objective shouting match.” (p.30)

This paper by Andrew Gelman and Christian Hennig calls for the abandonment of the terms objective and subjective in (not solely Bayesian) statistics. And argue that there is more than mere prior information and data to the construction of a statistical analysis. The paper is articulated as the authors’ proposal, followed by four application examples, then a survey of the philosophy of science perspectives on objectivity and subjectivity in statistics and other sciences, next to a study of the subjective and objective aspects of the mainstream statistical streams, concluding with a discussion on the implementation of the proposed move. 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.