## a neat EM resolution

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , on February 3, 2021 by xi'an

Read (and answered) this question on X validation about finding the maximum likelihood estimator of a 2×2 Gaussian covariance matrix when some observations are partly missing.  The neat thing is that, in this case, the maximisation step is identical to the maximum likelihood estimation of the 2×2 Gaussian covariance matrix by redefining the empirical covariance matrix into Z and maximising

$-n\log|\Sigma|-\text{trace}(Z\Sigma^{-1})$

in Σ. Nothing involved but fun to explain, nonetheless. (In my final exam this year, no student even approached the EM questions!)

## double if not exponential

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , on December 10, 2020 by xi'an

In one of my last quizzes for the year, as the course is about to finish, I asked whether mean or median was the MLE for a double exponential sample of odd size, without checking for the derivation of the result, as I was under the impression it was a straightforward result. Despite being outside exponential families. As my students found it impossible to solve within the allocated 5 minutes, I had a look, could not find an immediate argument (!), and used instead this nice American Statistician note by Robert Norton based on the derivative being the number of observations smaller than θ minus the number of observations larger than θ.  This leads to the result as well as the useful counter-example of a range of MLE solutions when the number of observations is even.

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2017 by xi'an

I am a PhD student in biostatistics, and an avid reader of your work. I recently came across this blog post, where you review a text on statistical paradoxes, and I was struck by this section:

“For instance, the author considers the MLE being biased to be a paradox (p.117), while omitting the much more substantial “paradox” of the non-existence of unbiased estimators of most parameters—which simply means unbiasedness is irrelevant. Or the other even more puzzling “paradox” that the secondary MLE derived from the likelihood associated with the distribution of a primary MLE may differ from the primary. (My favourite!)”

I found this section provocative, but I am unclear on the nature of these “paradoxes”. I reviewed my stat inference notes and came across the classic example that there is no unbiased estimator for 1/p w.r.t. a binomial distribution, but I believe you are getting at a much more general result. If it’s not too much trouble, I would sincerely appreciate it if you could point me in the direction of a reference or provide a bit more detail for these two “paradoxes”.

The text is Chang’s Paradoxes in Scientific Inference, which I indeed reviewed negatively. To answer about the bias “paradox”, it is indeed a neglected fact that, while the average of any transform of a sample obviously is an unbiased estimator of its mean (!), the converse does not hold, namely, an arbitrary transform of the model parameter θ is not necessarily enjoying an unbiased estimator. In Lehmann and Casella, Chapter 2, Section 4, this issue is (just slightly) discussed. But essentially, transforms that lead to unbiased estimators are mostly the polynomial transforms of the mean parameters… (This also somewhat connects to a recent X validated question as to why MLEs are not always unbiased. Although the simplest explanation is that the transform of the MLE is the MLE of the transform!) In exponential families, I would deem the range of transforms with unbiased estimators closely related to the collection of functions that allow for inverse Laplace transforms, although I cannot quote a specific result on this hunch.

The other “paradox” is that, if h(X) is the MLE of the model parameter θ for the observable X, the distribution of h(X) has a density different from the density of X and, hence, its maximisation in the parameter θ may differ. An example (my favourite!) is the MLE of ||a||² based on x N(a,I) which is ||x||², a poor estimate, and which (strongly) differs from the MLE of ||a||² based on ||x||², which is close to (1-p/||x||²)²||x||² and (nearly) admissible [as discussed in the Bayesian Choice].

## empirical Bayes, reference priors, entropy & EM

Posted in Mountains, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2017 by xi'an

Klebanov and co-authors from Berlin arXived this paper a few weeks ago and it took me a quiet evening in Darjeeling to read it. It starts with the premises that led Robbins to introduce empirical Bayes in 1956 (although the paper does not appear in the references), where repeated experiments with different parameters are run. Except that it turns non-parametric in estimating the prior. And to avoid resorting to the non-parametric MLE, which is the empirical distribution, it adds a smoothness penalty function to the picture. (Warning: I am not a big fan of non-parametric MLE!) The idea seems to have been Good’s, who acknowledged using the entropy as penalty is missing in terms of reparameterisation invariance. Hence the authors suggest instead to use as penalty function on the prior a joint relative entropy on both the parameter and the prior, which amounts to the average of the Kullback-Leibler divergence between the sampling distribution and the predictive based on the prior. Which is then independent of the parameterisation. And of the dominating measure. This is the only tangible connection with reference priors found in the paper.

The authors then introduce a non-parametric EM algorithm, where the unknown prior becomes the “parameter” and the M step means optimising an entropy in terms of this prior. With an infinite amount of data, the true prior (meaning the overall distribution of the genuine parameters in this repeated experiment framework) is a fixed point of the algorithm. However, it seems that the only way it can be implemented is via discretisation of the parameter space, which opens a whole Pandora box of issues, from discretisation size to dimensionality problems. And to motivating the approach by regularisation arguments, since the final product remains an atomic distribution.

While the alternative of estimating the marginal density of the data by kernels and then aiming at the closest entropy prior is discussed, I find it surprising that the paper does not consider the rather natural of setting a prior on the prior, e.g. via Dirichlet processes.

## twilight zone [of statistics]

Posted in Books, pictures, R, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2016 by xi'an

“I have decided that mixtures, like tequila, are inherently evil and should be avoided at all costs.” L. Wasserman

Larry Wasserman once remarked that finite mixtures were like the twilight zone of statistics, thanks to the numerous idiosyncrasies associated with such models. And George Casella had similar strong reservations about mixture estimation. Avi Feller and co-authors [including Natesh Pillai] have just arXived a paper on this topic, exhibiting shocking (!) properties of the MLE! Their core example is a mixture of two normal distributions with known common variance and known weight different from 0.5, which ensures identifiability. This is a favourite example of mine that we used for instance in our book Introducing Monte Carlo methods with R. If only because we can plot the likelihood and posterior surfaces. (Warning: I wrote those notes on an earlier version of the paper, so mileage may vary in terms of accuracy!)

The “shocking” discovery in the paper is that the MLE is wrong as often as not in selecting the sign of the difference Δ between both means, with an additional accumulation point at zero. The global mode may thus be in the wrong place for small enough sample sizes. And even for larger sizes: when the difference between the means is small the likelihood is likely to be unimodal with a mode quite close to zero. (An interesting remark is that the likelihood derivative is always zero at Δ=0 when considering the special case of both means equal to -Δ and to πΔ/(1-π), respectively, which implies that the overall mean of the mixture is equal to zero. A potential connection with our reparameterisation paper, maybe?)

The alternative proposed by Avi and his co-authors is to proceed through moments, i.e., to revert to Pearson (1892). There are however difficulties with this approach, first and foremost the non-uniqueness of the moment equations used to estimate Δ. For instance, the second cumulant equation chosen by the authors is not always defined as opposed to the third cumulant equation (why not using this third cumulant then). Which does not always produce the right sign… But, in a strange twist, the authors turn those deficiencies into signals for both pathologies (wrong sign and “pile-up” at zero).

“…the grid bootstrap yields an exact p-value for any valid test statistic.”

The most importance issue in this framework being in estimating the parameters, the authors opt for an approach based on tests, which is definitely surprising given the well-known deficiencies of standard tests in mixtures. The test chosen here is a Wald test with a statistic equal to the χ² version of the first cumulant differences. I am surprised that the χ² approximation works in such an unfriendly setting. And I do not understand how the grid is used, unless a certain degree of approximation is accepted, which takes us back to the “dark ages” of imposing a minimal distance Δ to achieve consistency, as in Ghosh and Sen (1985).

“..our concern about sign error is trivial in the Bayesian setting: the global mode is simply a poor summary of a multi-modal posterior. More broadly, the weak identification issues we highlight in this paper are not necessarily relevant to a strict Bayesian.”

A priori, I do not think pathologies of the MLE always transfer to Bayes estimators, unless one uses the MAP as an [poor] estimator. But using the MAP is not necessary since posterior means are meaningful in this identified setting, where label switching should not occur. However, running the same experiments with a Gaussian prior on both means and using the posterior mean as my estimator, I did obtain the same pathology of Bayes estimates [also produced in the supplementary material] not concentrating on the true value of the difference, but putting weight on the opposite value and at zero. Using a less standard prior inspired by David Rossell’s talk on non-local priors two weeks ago, which avoids a neighbourhood of zero, I did not get a much different picture as illustrated below:

Overall, I remain somewhat uncertain as to what to conclude from this pathological behaviour. When both means are close enough, the sign of the difference is often estimated wrongly. But that could simply mean that the means are not significantly different, for that sample size…