Archive for subjective probability

statistical illiteracy

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2020 by xi'an

An opinion tribune in the Guardian today about the importance of statistical literacy in these COVIdays, entitled “Statistical illiteracy isn’t a niche problem. During a pandemic, it can be fatal“, by Carlo Rovelli (a physics professor on Luminy campus) which, while well-intended, is not particularly helping. For instance, the tribune starts with a story of a cluster of a rare disease happening in a lab along with the warning that [Poisson] clusters also occur with uniform sampling. But.. being knowledgeable about the Poisson process may help in reducing the psychological stress within the lab only if the cluster size is compatible with the prevalence of the disease in the neighbourhood. Obviously, a poor understanding of randomness and statistical tools has not help with the handling of the pandemics by politicians, decision-makers, civil servants and doctors (although I would have added the fundamental misconception about scientific models which led most people to confuse the map with the territory and later cry wolf…)

Rovelli also cites Bruno de Finetti as “the key to understanding probability”, as a representation of one’s beliefs rather than a real thing. While I agree with this Bayesian perspective, I am unsure it will percolate well enough with the Guardian audience. And bring more confidence in the statistical statements made by experts…

It is only when I finished reading the column that I realised it was adapted from a book soon to appear by the author. And felt slightly cheated. [Obviously, I did not read it so this is NOT a book review!]

Probability and Bayesian modeling [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, R, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2020 by xi'an

Probability and Bayesian modeling is a textbook by Jim Albert [whose reply is included at the end of this entry] and Jingchen Hu that CRC Press sent me for review in CHANCE. (The book is also freely available in bookdown format.) The level of the textbook is definitely most introductory as it dedicates its first half on probability concepts (with no measure theory involved), meaning mostly focusing on counting and finite sample space models. The second half moves to Bayesian inference(s) with a strong reliance on JAGS for the processing of more realistic models. And R vignettes for the simplest cases (where I discovered R commands I ignored, like dplyr::mutate()!).

As a preliminary warning about my biases, I am always reserved at mixing introductions to probability theory and to (Bayesian) statistics in the same book, as I feel they should be separated to avoid confusion. As for instance between histograms and densities, or between (theoretical) expectation and (empirical) mean. I therefore fail to relate to the pace and tone adopted in the book which, in my opinion, seems to dally on overly simple examples [far too often concerned with food or baseball] while skipping over the concepts and background theory. For instance, introducing the concept of subjective probability as early as page 6 is laudable but I doubt it will engage fresh readers when describing it as a measurement of one’s “belief about the truth of an event”, then stressing that “make any kind of measurement, one needs a tool like a scale or ruler”. Overall, I have no particularly focused criticisms on the probability part except for the discrete vs continuous imbalance. (With the Poisson distribution not covered in the Discrete Distributions chapter. And the “bell curve” making a weird and unrigorous appearance there.) Galton’s board (no mention found of quincunx) could have been better exploited towards the physical definition of a prior, following Steve Stiegler’s analysis, by adding a second level. Or turned into an R coding exercise. In the continuous distributions chapter, I would have seen the cdf coming first to the pdf, rather than the opposite. And disliked the notion that a Normal distribution was supported by an histogram of (marathon) running times, i.e. values lower bounded by 122 (at the moment). Or later (in Chapter 8) for Roger Federer’s serving times. Incidentally, a fun typo on p.191, at least fun for LaTeX users, as

f_{Y\ mid X}

with an extra space between `\’ and `mid’! (I also noticed several occurrences of the unvoidable “the the” typo in the last chapters.) The simulation from a bivariate Normal distribution hidden behind a customised R function sim_binom() when it could have been easily described as a two-stage hierarchy. And no comment on the fact that a sample from Y-1.5X could be directly derived from the joint sample. (Too unconscious a statistician?)

When moving to Bayesian inference, a large section is spent on very simple models like estimating a proportion or a mean, covering both discrete and continuous priors. And strongly focusing on conjugate priors despite giving warnings that they do not necessarily reflect prior information or prior belief. With some debatable recommendation for “large” prior variances as weakly informative or (worse) for Exp(1) as a reference prior for sample precision in the linear model (p.415). But also covering Bayesian model checking either via prior predictive (hence Bayes factors) or posterior predictive (with no mention of using the data twice). A very marginalia in introducing a sufficient statistic for the Normal model. In the Normal model checking section, an estimate of the posterior density of the mean is used without (apparent) explanation.

“It is interesting to note the strong negative correlation in these parameters. If one assigned informative independent priors on and , these prior beliefs would be counter to the correlation between the two parameters observed in the data.”

For the same reasons of having to cut on mathematical validation and rigour, Chapter 9 on MCMC is not explaining why MCMC algorithms are converging outside of the finite state space case. The proposal in the algorithmic representation is chosen as a Uniform one, since larger dimension problems are handled by either Gibbs or JAGS. The recommendations about running MCMC do not include how many iterations one “should” run (or other common queries on Stack eXchange), albeit they do include the sensible running multiple chains and comparing simulated predictive samples with the actual data as a  model check. However, the MCMC chapter very quickly and inevitably turns into commented JAGS code. Which I presume would require more from the students than just reading the available code. Like JAGS manual. Chapter 10 is mostly a series of examples of Bayesian hierarchical modeling, with illustrations of the shrinkage effect like the one on the book cover. Chapter 11 covers simple linear regression with some mentions of weakly informative priors,  although in a BUGS spirit of using large [enough?!] variances: “If one has little information about the location of a regression parameter, then the choice of the prior guess is not that important and one chooses a large value for the prior standard deviation . So the regression intercept and slope are each assigned a Normal prior with a mean of 0 and standard deviation equal to the large value of 100.” (p.415). Regardless of the scale of y? Standardisation is covered later in the chapter (with the use of the R function scale()) as part of constructing more informative priors, although this sounds more like data-dependent priors to me in the sense that the scale and location are summarily estimated by empirical means from the data. The above quote also strikes me as potentially confusing to the students, as it does not spell at all how to design a joint distribution on the linear regression coefficients that translate the concentration of these coefficients along y̅=β⁰+β¹x̄. Chapter 12 expands the setting to multiple regression and generalised linear models, mostly consisting of examples. It however suggests using cross-validation for model checking and then advocates DIC (deviance information criterion) as “to approximate a model’s out-of-sample predictive performance” (p.463). If only because it is covered in JAGS, the definition of the criterion being relegated to the last page of the book. Chapter 13 concludes with two case studies, the (often used) Federalist Papers analysis and a baseball career hierarchical model. Which may sound far-reaching considering the modest prerequisites the book started with.

In conclusion of this rambling [lazy Sunday] review, this is not a textbook I would have the opportunity to use in Paris-Dauphine but I can easily conceive its adoption for students with limited maths exposure. As such it offers a decent entry to the use of Bayesian modelling, supported by a specific software (JAGS), and rightly stresses the call to model checking and comparison with pseudo-observations. Provided the course is reinforced with a fair amount of computer labs and projects, the book can indeed achieve to properly introduce students to Bayesian thinking. Hopefully leading them to seek more advanced courses on the topic.

Update: Jim Albert sent me the following precisions after this review got on-line:

Thanks for your review of our recent book.  We had a particular audience in mind, specifically undergraduate American students with some calculus background who are taking their first course in probability and statistics.  The traditional approach (which I took many years ago) teaches some probability one semester and then traditional inference (focusing on unbiasedness, sampling distributions, tests and confidence intervals) in the second semester.  There didn’t appear to be any Bayesian books at that calculus-based undergraduate level and that motivated the writing of this book.  Anyway, I think your comments were certainly fair and we’ve already made some additions to our errata list based on your comments.
[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!]

a concise introduction to statistical inference [book review]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2017 by xi'an

[Just to warn readers and avoid emails about Xi’an plagiarising Christian!, this book was sent to me by CRC Press for a review. To be published in CHANCE.]

This is an introduction to statistical inference. And with 180 pages, it indeed is concise! I could actually stop the review at this point as a concise review of a concise introduction to statistical inference, as I do not find much originality in this introduction, intended for “mathematically sophisticated first-time student of statistics”. Although sophistication is in the eye of the sophist, of course, as this book has margin symbols in the guise of integrals to warn of section using “differential or integral calculus” and a remark that the book is still accessible without calculus… (Integral calculus as in Riemann integrals, not Lebesgue integrals, mind you!) It even includes appendices with the Greek alphabet, summation notations, and exponential/logarithms.

“In statistics we often bypass the probability model altogether and simply specify the random variable directly. In fact, there is a result (that we won’t cover in detail) that tells us that, for any random variable, we can find an appropriate probability model.” (p.17)

Given its limited mathematical requirements, the book does not get very far in the probabilistic background of statistics methods, which makes the corresponding chapter not particularly helpful as opposed to a prerequisite on probability basics. Since not much can be proven without “all that complicated stuff about for any ε>0” (p.29). And makes defining correctly notions like the Central Limit Theorem impossible. For instance, Chebychev’s inequality comes within a list of admitted results. There is no major mistake in the chapter, even though mentioning that two correlated Normal variables are jointly Normal (p.27) is inexact.

“The power of a test is the probability that you do not reject a null that is in fact correct.” (p.120)

Most of the book follows the same pattern as other textbooks at that level, covering inference on a mean and a probability, confidence intervals, hypothesis testing, p-values, and linear regression. With some words of caution about the interpretation of p-values. (And the unfortunate inversion of the interpretation of power above.) Even mentioning the Cult [of Significance] I reviewed a while ago.

Given all that, the final chapter comes as a surprise, being about Bayesian inference! Which should make me rejoice, obviously, but I remain skeptical of introducing the concept to readers with so little mathematical background. And hence a very shaky understanding of a notion like conditional distributions. (Which reminds me of repeated occurrences on X validated when newcomers hope to bypass textbooks and courses to grasp the meaning of posteriors and such. Like when asking why Bayes Theorem does not apply for expectations.) I can feel the enthusiasm of the author for this perspective and it may diffuse to some readers, but apart from being aware of the approach, I wonder how much they carry away from this brief (decent) exposure. The chapter borrows from Lee (2012, 4th edition) and from Berger (1985) for the decision-theoretic part. The limitations of the exercise are shown for hypothesis testing (or comparison) by the need to restrict the parameter space to two possible values. And for decision making. Similarly, introducing improper priors and the likelihood principle [distinguished there from the law of likelihood] is likely to get over the head of most readers and clashes with the level of the previous chapters. (And I do not think this is the most efficient way to argue in favour of a Bayesian approach to the problem of statistical inference: I have now dropped all references to the likelihood principle from my lectures. Not because of the controversy, but simply because the students do not get it.) By the end of the chapter, it is unclear a neophyte would be able to spell out how one could specify a prior for one of the problems processed in the earlier chapters. The appendix on de Finetti’s formalism on personal probabilities is very much unlikely to help in this regard. While it sounds so far beyond the level of the remainder of the book.

on de Finetti’s instrumentalist philosophy of probability

Posted in Books, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , on January 5, 2016 by xi'an

Pont Alexandre III, Paris, May 8, 2012. On our way to the old-fashioned science museum, Palais de la Découverte, we had to cross the bridge on foot as the nearest métro station was closed, due to N. Sarkozy taking part in a war memorial ceremony there...On Wednesday January 6, there is a conference in Paris [10:30, IHPST, 13, rue du Four, Paris 6] by Joseph Berkovitz (University of Toronto) on the philosophy of probability of Bruno de Finetti. Too bad this is during MCMSkv!

De Finetti is one of the founding fathers of the modern theory of subjective probability, where probabilities are coherent degrees of belief. De Finetti held that probabilities are inherently subjective and he argued that none of the objective interpretations of probability makes sense. While his theory has been influential in science and philosophy, it has encountered various objections. In particular, it has been argued that de Finetti’s concept of probability is too permissive, licensing degrees of belief that we would normally call imprudent. Further, de Finetti is commonly conceived as giving an operational, behaviorist definition of degrees of belief and accordingly of probability. Thus, the theory is said to inherit the difficulties embodied in operationalism and behaviorism. We argue that these and some other objections to de Finetti’s theory are unfounded as they overlook various central aspects of de Finetti’s philosophy of probability. We then propose a new interpretation of de Finetti’s theory that highlights these central aspects and explains how they are an integral part of de Finetti’s instrumentalist philosophy of probability. Building on this interpretation of de Finetti’s theory, we draw some lessons for the realist-instrumentalist controversy about the nature of science.