Archive for MCMC

Natural nested sampling

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 28, 2023 by xi'an

“The nested sampling algorithm solves otherwise challenging, high-dimensional integrals by evolving a collection of live points through parameter space. The algorithm was immediately adopted in cosmology because it partially overcomes three of the major difficulties in Markov chain Monte Carlo, the algorithm traditionally used for Bayesian computation. Nested sampling simultaneously returns results for model comparison and parameter inference; successfully solves multimodal problems; and is naturally self-tuning, allowing its immediate application to new challenges.”

I came across a review on nested sampling in Nature Reviews Methods Primers of May 2022, with a large number of contributing authors, some of whom I knew from earlier papers in astrostatistics. As illustrated by the above quote from the introduction, the tone is definitely optimistic about the capacities of the method, reproducing the original argument that the evidence is the posterior expectation of the likelihood L(θ) under the prior. Which representation, while valid, is not translating into a dimension-free methodology since parameters θ still need be simulated.

“Nested sampling lies in a class of algorithms that form a path of bridging distributions and evolves samples along that path. Nested sampling stands out because the path is automatic and smooth — compression along log X by, on average, 1/𝑛at each iteration — and because along the path is compressed through constrained priors, rather than from the prior to the posterior. This was a motivation for nested sampling as it avoids phase transitions — abrupt changes in the bridging distributions — that cause problems for other methods, including path samplers, such as annealing.”

The elephant in the room is eventually processed, namely the simulation from the prior constrained to the likelihood level sets that in my experience (with, e.g., mixture posteriors) proves most time consuming. This stems from the fact that these level sets are notoriously difficult to evaluate from a given sample: all points stand within the set but they hardly provide any indication of the boundaries of saif set… Region sampling requires to construct a region that bounds the likelihood level set, which requires some knowledge of the likelihood variations to have a chance to remain efficient, incl. in cosmological applications, while regular MCMC steps require an increasing number of steps as the constraint gets tighter and tighter. For otherwise it essentially amounts to duplicating a live particle.

on control variates

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2023 by xi'an

A few months ago, I had to write a thesis evaluation of Rémi Leluc’s PhD, which contained several novel Monte Carlo proposals on control variates and importance techniques. For instance, Leluc et al. (Statistics and Computing, 2021) revisits the concept of control variables by adding a perspective of control variable selection using LASSO. This prior selection is relevant since control variables are not necessarily informative about the objective function being integrated and my experience is that the more variables the less reliable the improvement. The remarkable feature of the results is in obtaining explicit and non-asymptotic bounds.

The author obtains a concentration inequality on the error resulting from the use of control variables, under strict assumptions on the variables. The associated numerical experiment illustrates the difficulties of practically implementing these principles due to the number of parameters to calibrate. I found the example of a capture-recapture experiment on ducks (European Dipper) particularly interesting, not only because we had used it in our book but also because it highlights the dependence of estimates on the dominant measure.

Based on a NeurIPS 2022 poster presentation Chapter 3 is devoted to the use of control variables in sequential Monte Carlo, where a sequence of importance functions is constructed based on previous iterations to improve the approximation of the target distribution. Under relatively strong assumptions of importance functions dominating the target distribution (which could generally be achieved by using an increasing fraction of the data in a partial posterior distribution), of sub-Gaussian tails of an intractable distribution’s residual, a concentration inequality is established for the adaptive control variable estimator.

This chapter uses a different family of control variables, based on a Stein operator introduced in Mira et al. (2016). In the case where the target is a mixture in IRd, one of our benchmarks in Cappé et al. (2008), remarkable gains are obtained for relatively high dimensions. While the computational demands of these improvements are not mentioned, the comparison with an MCMC approach (NUTS) based on the same number of particles demonstrates a clear improvement in Bayesian estimation.

Chapter 4 corresponds to a very recent arXival and presents a very original approach to control variate correction by reproducing the interest rate law through an approximation using the closest neighbor (leave-one-out) method. It requires neither control function nor necessarily additional simulation, except for the evaluation of the integral, which is rather remarkable, forming a kind of parallel with the bootstrap. (Any other approximation of the distribution would also be acceptable if available at the same computational cost.) The thesis aims to establish the convergence of the method when integration is performed by a Voronoi tessellation, which leads to an optimal rate of order n-1-2/d for quadratic error (under conditions of integrand regularity). In the alternative where the integral must be evaluated by Monte Carlo, this optimality disappears, unless a massive amount of simulations are used. Numerical illustrations cover SDEs and a Bayesian hierarchical modeling already used in Oates et al. (2017), with massive gain in both cases.

postdoctoral research position

Posted in Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2023 by xi'an

Through the ERC Synergy grant OCEAN (On intelligenCE And Networks: Synergistic research in Bayesian Statistics, Microeconomics and Computer Sciences), I am seeking one postdoctoral researcher with an interest in Bayesian federated learning, distributed MCMC, approximate Bayesian inference, and data privacy.

The project is based at Université Paris Dauphine, on the new PariSanté Campus.  The postdoc will join the OCEAN teams of researchers directed by Éric Moulines and Christian Robert to work on the above themes with multiple focus from statistical theory, to Bayesian methodology, to algorithms, to medical applications.


The candidate should hold a doctorate in statistics or machine learning, with demonstrated skills in Bayesian analysis and Monte Carlo methodology, a record of publications in these domains, and an interest in working as part of an interdisciplinary international team. Scientific maturity and research autonomy are a must for applying.


Besides a 2 year postdoctoral contract at Université Paris Dauphine (with possible extension for one year), at a salary of 31K€ per year, the project will fund travel to OCEAN partners’ institutions (University of Warwick or University of Berkeley) and participation to yearly summer schools. University benefits are attached to the position and no teaching duty is involved, as per ERC rules.

The postdoctoral work will begin 1 September 2023.

Application Procedure

To apply, preferably before 31 May, please send the following in one pdf to Christian Robert (

  • a letter of application,
  • a CV,
  • letters of recommendation sent directly by recommenders

Bayesian inference: challenges, perspectives, and prospects

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2023 by xi'an

Over the past year, Judith, Michael and I edited a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society on Bayesian inference: challenges, perspectives, and prospects, in celebration of the current President of the Royal Society, Adrian Smith, and his contributions to Bayesian analysis that have impacted the field up to this day. The issue is now out! The following is the beginning of our introduction of the series.

When contemplating his past achievements, it is striking to align the emergence of massive advances in these fields with some papers or books of his. For instance, Lindley’s & Smith’s ‘Bayes Estimates for the Linear Model’ (1971), a Read Paper at the Royal Statistical Society, is making the case for the Bayesian analysis of this most standard statistical model, as well as emphasizing the notion of exchangeability that is foundational in Bayesian statistics, and paving the way to the emergence of hierarchical Bayesian modelling. It thus makes a link between the early days of Bruno de Finetti, whose work Adrian Smith translated into English, and the current research in non-parametric and robust statistics. Bernardo’s & Smith’s masterpiece, Bayesian Theory (1994), sets statistical inference within decision- and information-theoretic frameworks in a most elegant and universal manner that could be deemed a Bourbaki volume for Bayesian statistics if this classification endeavour had reached further than pure mathematics. It also emphasizes the central role of hierarchical modelling in the construction of priors, as exemplified in Carlin’s et al.‘Hierarchical Bayesian analysis of change point problems’ (1992).

The series of papers published in 1990 by Alan Gelfand & Adrian Smith, esp. ‘Sampling-Based Approaches to Calculating Marginal Densities’ (1990), is overwhelmingly perceived as the birth date of modern Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) methods, as itbrought to the whole statistics community (and the quickly wider communities) the realization that MCMC simulation was the sesame to unlock complex modelling issues. The consequences on the adoption of Bayesian modelling by non-specialists are enormous and long-lasting.Similarly, Gordon’set al.‘Novel approach to nonlinear/non-Gaussian Bayesian state estimation’ (1992) is considered as the birthplace of sequential Monte Carlo, aka particle filtering, with considerable consequences in tracking, robotics, econometrics and many other fields. Titterington’s, Smith’s & Makov’s reference book, ‘Statistical Analysis of Finite Mixtures(1984)  is a precursor in the formalization of heterogeneous data structures, paving the way for the incoming MCMC resolutions like Tanner & Wong (1987), Gelman & King (1990) and Diebolt & Robert (1990). Denison et al.’s book, ‘Bayesian methods for nonlinear classification and regression’ (2002) is another testimony to the influence of Adrian Smith on the field,stressing the emergence of robust and general classification and nonlinear regression methods to analyse complex data, prefiguring in a way the later emergence of machine-learning methods,with the additional Bayesian assessment of uncertainty. It is also bringing forward the capacity of operating Bayesian non-parametric modelling that is now broadly accepted, following a series of papers by Denison et al. in the late 1990s like CART and MARS.

We are quite grateful to the authors contributing to this volume, namely Joshua J. Bon, Adam Bretherton, Katie Buchhorn, Susanna Cramb, Christopher Drovandi, Conor Hassan, Adrianne L. Jenner, Helen J. Mayfield, James M. McGree, Kerrie Mengersen, Aiden Price, Robert Salomone, Edgar Santos-Fernandez, Julie Vercelloni and Xiaoyu Wang, Afonso S. Bandeira, Antoine Maillard, Richard Nickl and Sven Wang , Fan Li, Peng Ding and Fabrizia Mealli, Matthew Stephens, Peter D. Grünwald, Sumio Watanabe, Peter Müller, Noirrit K. Chandra and Abhra Sarkar, Kori Khan and Alicia Carriquiry, Arnaud Doucet, Eric Moulines and Achille Thin, Beatrice Franzolini, Andrea Cremaschi, Willem van den Boom and Maria De Iorio, Sandra Fortini and Sonia Petrone, Sylvia Frühwirth-Schnatter, Sara Wade, Chris C. Holmes and Stephen G. Walker, Lizhen Nie and Veronika Ročková. Some of the papers are open-access, if not all, hence enjoy them!

partial rankings and aggregate ranks

Posted in Books, Kids, R, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2023 by xi'an

When interviewing impressive applicants from a stunning variety of places and background for fellows in our Data Science for Social Good program (in Warwick and Kaiserslautern) this summer, we came through the common conundrum of comparing ranks while each of us only meeting a subset of the candidates. Over a free morning, I briefly thought of the problem (while swimming) and then wrote a short R code to infer about an aggregate ranking, ρ, based on a simple model, namely a Poisson distribution on the distance between an individual’s ranking and the aggregate

d(r_i,\rho)\sim\mathcal P(\lambda)

a uniform distribution on the missing ranks as well as on the aggregate, and a non-informative prior on λ. Leading to a three step Gibbs sampler for the completion and the simulation of ρ and λ.

I am aware that the problem has been tackled in many different ways, including Bayesian ones (as in Deng et al., 2014) and local ones, but this was a fun exercise. Albeit we did not use any model in the end!

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