Archive for minimaxity

O’Bayes 19/3

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 2, 2019 by xi'an

Nancy Reid gave the first talk of the [Canada] day, in an impressive comparison of all approaches in statistics that involve a distribution of sorts on the parameter, connected with the presentation she gave at BFF4 in Harvard two years ago, including safe Bayes options this time. This was related to several (most?) of the talks at the conference, given the level of worry (!) about the choice of a prior distribution. But the main assessment of the methods still seemed to be centred on a frequentist notion of calibration, meaning that epistemic interpretations of probabilities and hence most of Bayesian answers were disqualified from the start.

In connection with Nancy’s focus, Peter Hoff’s talk also concentrated on frequency valid confidence intervals in (linear) hierarchical models. Using prior information or structure to build better and shrinkage-like confidence intervals at a given confidence level. But not in the decision-theoretic way adopted by George Casella, Bill Strawderman and others in the 1980’s. And also making me wonder at the relevance of contemplating a fixed coverage as a natural goal. Above, a side result shown by Peter that I did not know and which may prove useful for Monte Carlo simulation.

Jaeyong Lee worked on a complex model for banded matrices that starts with a regular Wishart prior on the unrestricted space of matrices, computes the posterior and then projects this distribution onto the constrained subspace. (There is a rather consequent literature on this subject, including works by David Dunson in the past decade of which I was unaware.) This is a smart demarginalisation idea but I wonder a wee bit at the notion as the constrained space has measure zero for the larger model. This could explain for the resulting posterior not being a true posterior for the constrained model in the sense that there is no prior over the constrained space that could return such a posterior. Another form of marginalisation paradox. The crux of the paper is however about constructing a functional form of minimaxity. In his discussion of the paper, Guido Consonni provided a representation of the post-processed posterior (P³) that involves the Dickey-Savage ratio, sort of, making me more convinced of the connection.

As a lighter aside, one item of local information I should definitely have broadcasted more loudly and long enough in advance to the conference participants is that the University of Warwick is not located in ye olde town of Warwick, where there is no university, but on the outskirts of the city of Coventry, but not to be confused with the University of Coventry. Located in Coventry.

 

distributed posteriors

Posted in Books, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , on February 27, 2019 by xi'an

Another presentation by our OxWaSP students introduced me to the notion of distributed posteriors, following a 2018 paper by Botond Szabó and Harry van Zanten. Which corresponds to the construction of posteriors when conducting a divide & conquer strategy. The authors show that an adaptation of the prior to the division of the sample is necessary to recover the (minimax) convergence rate obtained in the non-distributed case. This is somewhat annoying, except that the adaptation amounts to take the original prior to the power 1/m, when m is the number of divisions. They further show that when the regularity (parameter) of the model is unknown, the optimal rate cannot be recovered unless stronger assumptions are made on the non-zero parameters of the model.

“First of all, we show that depending on the communication budget, it might be advantageous to group local machines and let different groups work on different aspects of the high-dimensional object of interest. Secondly, we show that it is possible to have adaptation in communication restricted distributed settings, i.e. to have data-driven tuning that automatically achieves the correct bias-variance trade-off.”

I find the paper of considerable interest for scalable MCMC methods, even though the setting may happen to sound too formal, because the study incorporates parallel computing constraints. (Although I did not investigate the more theoretical aspects of the paper.)

noninformative Bayesian prior with a finite support

Posted in Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , on December 4, 2018 by xi'an

A few days ago, Pierre Jacob pointed me to a PNAS paper published earlier this year on a form of noninformative Bayesian analysis by Henri Mattingly and coauthors. They consider a prior that “maximizes the mutual information between parameters and predictions”, which sounds very much like José Bernardo’s notion of reference priors. With the rather strange twist of having the prior depending on the data size m even they work under an iid assumption. Here information is defined as the difference between the entropy of the prior and the conditional entropy which is not precisely defined in the paper but looks like the expected [in the data x] Kullback-Leibler divergence between prior and posterior. (I have general issues with the paper in that I often find it hard to read for a lack of precision and of definition of the main notions.)

One highly specific (and puzzling to me) feature of the proposed priors is that they are supported by a finite number of atoms, which reminds me very much of the (minimax) least favourable priors over compact parameter spaces, as for instance in the iconic paper by Casella and Strawderman (1984). For the same mathematical reason that non-constant analytic functions must have separated maxima. This is conducted under the assumption and restriction of a compact parameter space, which must be chosen in most cases. somewhat arbitrarily and not without consequences. I can somehow relate to the notion that a finite support prior translates the limited precision in the estimation brought by a finite sample. In other words, given a sample size of m, there is a maximal precision one can hope for, producing further decimals being silly. Still, the fact that the support of the prior is fixed a priori, completely independently of the data, is both unavoidable (for the prior to be prior!) and very dependent on the choice of the compact set. I would certainly prefer to see a maximal degree of precision expressed a posteriori, meaning that the support would then depend on the data. And handling finite support posteriors is rather awkward in that many notions like confidence intervals do not make much sense in that setup. (Similarly, one could argue that Bayesian non-parametric procedures lead to estimates with a finite number of support points but these are determined based on the data, not a priori.)

Interestingly, the derivation of the “optimal” prior is operated by iterations where the next prior is the renormalised version of the current prior times the exponentiated Kullback-Leibler divergence, which is “guaranteed to converge to the global maximum” for a discretised parameter space. The authors acknowledge that the resolution is poorly suited to multidimensional settings and hence to complex models, and indeed the paper only covers a few toy examples of moderate and even humble dimensions.

Another difficulty with the paper is the absence of temporal consistency: since the prior depends on the sample size, the posterior for n i.i.d. observations is no longer the prior for the (n+1)th observation.

“Because it weights the irrelevant parameter volume, the Jeffreys prior has strong dependence on microscopic effects invisible to experiment”

I simply do not understand the above sentence that apparently counts as a criticism of Jeffreys (1939). And would appreciate anyone enlightening me! The paper goes into comparing priors through Bayes factors, which ignores the main difficulty of an automated solution such as Jeffreys priors in its inability to handle infinite parameter spaces by being almost invariably improper.

prior against truth!

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , on June 4, 2018 by xi'an

A question from X validated had interesting ramifications, about what happens when the prior does not cover the true value of the parameter (assuming there ? In fact, not so much in that, from a decision theoretic perspective, the fact that that π(θ⁰)=0, or even that π(θ)=0 in a neighbourhood of θ⁰ does not matter [too much]. Indeed, the formal derivation of a Bayes estimator as minimising the posterior loss means that the resulting estimator may take values that were “impossible” from a prior perspective! Indeed, taking for example the posterior mean, the convex combination of all possible values of θ under π may well escape the support of π when this support is not convex. Of course, one could argue that estimators should further be restricted to be possible values of θ under π but that would reduce their decision theoretic efficiency.

An example is the brilliant minimaxity result by George Casella and Bill Strawderman from 1981: when estimating a Normal mean μ based on a single observation xwith the additional constraint that |μ|<ρ, and when ρ is small enough, ρ1.0567 quite specifically, the minimax estimator for this problem under squared error loss corresponds to a (least favourable) uniform prior on the pair {ρ,ρ}, meaning that π gives equal weight to ρ and ρ (and none to any other value of the mean μ). When ρ increases above this bound, the least favourable prior sees its support growing one point at a time, but remaining a finite set of possible values. However the posterior expectation, 𝔼[μ|x], can take any value on (ρ,ρ).

In an even broader suspension of belief (in the prior), it may be that the prior has such a restricted support that it cannot consistently estimate the (true value of the) parameter, but the associated estimator may remain admissible or minimax.

non-local priors for mixtures

Posted in Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2016 by xi'an

[For some unknown reason, this commentary on the paper by Jairo Fúquene, Mark Steel, David Rossell —all colleagues at Warwick— on choosing mixture components by non-local priors remained untouched in my draft box…]

Choosing the number of components in a mixture of (e.g., Gaussian) distributions is a hard problem. It may actually be an altogether impossible problem, even when abstaining from moral judgements on mixtures. I do realise that the components can eventually be identified as the number of observations grows to infinity, as demonstrated foFaith, Barossa Valley wine: strange name for a Shiraz (as it cannot be a mass wine!, but nice flavoursr instance by Judith Rousseau and Kerrie Mengersen (2011). But for a finite and given number of observations, how much can we trust any conclusion about the number of components?! It seems to me that the criticism about the vacuity of point null hypotheses, namely the logical absurdity of trying to differentiate θ=0 from any other value of θ, applies to the estimation or test on the number of components of a mixture. Doubly so, one might argue, since a very small or a very close component is undistinguishable from a non-existing one. For instance, Definition 2 is correct from a mathematical viewpoint, but it does not spell out the multiple contiguities between k and k’ component mixtures.

The paper starts with a comprehensive coverage of l’état de l’art… When using a Bayes factor to compare a k-component and an h-component mixture, the behaviour of the factor is quite different depending on which model is correct. Essentially overfitted mixtures take much longer to detect than underfitted ones, which makes intuitive sense. And BIC should be corrected for overfitted mixtures by a canonical dimension λ between the true and the (larger) assumed number of parameters  into

2 log m(y) = 2 log p(y|θ) – λ log O(n) + O(log log n)

I would argue that this purely invalidates BIG in mixture settings since the canonical dimension λ is unavailable (and DIC does not provide a useful substitute as we illustrated a decade ago…) The criticism about Rousseau and Mengersen (2011) over-fitted mixture that their approach shrinks less than a model averaging over several numbers of components relates to minimaxity and hence sounds both overly technical and reverting to some frequentist approach to testing. Replacing testing with estimating sounds like the right idea.  And I am also unconvinced that a faster rate of convergence of the posterior probability or of the Bayes factor is a relevant factor when conducting

As for non local priors, the notion seems to rely on a specific topology for the parameter space since a k-component mixture can approach a k’-component mixture (when k'<k) in a continuum of ways (even for a given parameterisation). This topology seems to be summarised by the penalty (distance?) d(θ) in the paper. Is there an intrinsic version of d(θ), given the weird parameter space? Like one derived from the Kullback-Leibler distance between the models? The choice of how zero is approached clearly has an impact on how easily the “null” is detected, the more because of the somewhat discontinuous nature of the parameter space. Incidentally, I find it curious that only the distance between means is penalised… The prior also assumes independence between component parameters and component weights, which I think is suboptimal in dealing with mixtures, maybe suboptimal in a poetic sense!, as we discussed in our reparameterisation paper. I am not sure either than the speed the distance converges to zero (in Theorem 1) helps me to understand whether the mixture has too many components for the data’s own good when I can run a calibration experiment under both assumptions.

While I appreciate the derivation of a closed form non-local prior, I wonder at the importance of the result. Is it because this leads to an easier derivation of the posterior probability? I do not see the connection in Section 3, except maybe that the importance weight indeed involves this normalising constant when considering several k’s in parallel. Is there any convergence issue in the importance sampling solution of (3.1) and (3.3) since the simulations are run under the local posterior? While I appreciate the availability of an EM version for deriving the MAP, a fact I became aware of only recently, is it truly bringing an improvement when compared with picking the MCMC simulation with the highest completed posterior?

The section on prior elicitation is obviously of central interest to me! It however seems to be restricted to the derivation of the scale factor g, in the distance, and of the parameter q in the Dirichlet prior on the weights. While the other parameters suffer from being allocated the conjugate-like priors. I would obviously enjoy seeing how this approach proceeds with our non-informative prior(s). In this regard, the illustration section is nice, but one always wonders at the representative nature of the examples and the possible interpretations of real datasets. For instance, when considering that the Old Faithful is more of an HMM than a mixture.

approximations of Markov Chains [another garden of forking paths]

Posted in Books, Mountains, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2016 by xi'an

On the Sétaz cabin ride, Valloire, Dec. 23, 2011James Johndrow and co-authors from Duke wrote a paper on approximate MCMC that was arXived last August and that I missed. David Dunson‘s talk at MCMski made me aware of it. The paper studies the impact of replacing a valid kernel with a close approximation. Which is a central issue for many usages of MCMC in complex models, as exemplified by the large number of talks on that topic at MCMski.

“All of our bounds improve with the MCMC sample path length at the expected rate in t.”

A major constraint in the paper is Doeblin’s condition, which implies uniform geometric ergodicity. Not only it is a constraint on the Markov kernel but it is also one for the Markov operator in that it may prove impossible to… prove. The second constraint is that the approximate Markov kernel is close enough to the original, which sounds reasonable. Even though one can always worry that the total variation norm is too weak a norm to mean much. For instance, I presume with some confidence that this does not prevent the approximate Markov kernel from not being ergodic, e.g., not irreducible, not absolutely continuous wrt the target, null recurrent or transient. Actually, the assumption is stronger in that there exists a collection of approximations for all small enough values ε of the total variation distance. (Small enough meaning ε is much smaller than the complement α to 1 of the one step distance between the Markov kernel and the target. With poor kernels, the approximation must thus be very good.) This is less realistic than assuming the availability of one single approximation associated with an existing but undetermined distance ε. (For instance, the three examples of Section 3 in the paper show the existence of approximations achieving a certain distance ε, without providing a constructive determination of such approximations.) Under those assumptions, the average of the sequence of Markov moves according to the approximate kernel converges to the target in total variation (and in expectation for bounded functions). With sharp bounds on those distances. I am still a bit worried at the absence of conditions for the approximation to be ergodic.

“…for relatively short path lengths, there should exist a range of values for which aMCMC offers better performance in the compminimax sense.”

The paper also includes computational cost into the picture. Introducing the notion of compminimax error, which is the smallest (total variation) distance among all approximations at a given computational budget. Quite an interesting, innovative, and relevant notion that may however end up being too formal for practical use. And that does not include the time required to construct and calibrate the approximations.

how individualistic should statistics be?

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

keep-stats-subjectiveKeli 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.”

viemortrerbThe 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’.”

keep-calm-and-condi-tionI 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!