Archive for Theory of Probability

re-revisiting Jeffreys

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , on October 16, 2015 by xi'an

Amster12Analytic Posteriors for Pearson’s Correlation Coefficient was arXived yesterday by Alexander Ly , Maarten Marsman, and Eric-Jan Wagenmakers from Amsterdam, with whom I recently had two most enjoyable encounters (and dinners!). And whose paper on Jeffreys’ Theory of Probability I recently discussed in the Journal of Mathematical Psychology.

The paper re-analyses Bayesian inference on the Gaussian correlation coefficient, demonstrating that for standard reference priors the posterior moments are (surprisingly) available in closed form. Including priors suggested by Jeffreys (in a 1935 paper), Lindley, Bayarri (Susie’s first paper!), Berger, Bernardo, and Sun. They all are of the form


and the corresponding profile likelihood on ρ is in “closed” form (“closed” because it involves hypergeometric functions). And only depends on the sample correlation which is then marginally sufficient (although I do not like this notion!). The posterior moments associated with those priors can be expressed as series (of hypergeometric functions). While the paper is very technical, borrowing from the Bateman project and from Gradshteyn and Ryzhik, I like it if only because it reminds me of some early papers I wrote in the same vein, Abramowitz and Stegun being one of the very first books I bought (at a ridiculous price in the bookstore of Purdue University…).

Two comments about the paper: I see nowhere a condition for the posterior to be proper, although I assume it could be the n>1+γ−2α+δ constraint found in Corollary 2.1 (although I am surprised there is no condition on the coefficient β). The second thing is about the use of this analytic expression in simulations from the marginal posterior on ρ: Since the density is available, numerical integration is certainly more efficient than Monte Carlo integration [for quantities that are not already available in closed form]. Furthermore, in the general case when β is not zero, the cost of computing infinite series of hypergeometric and gamma functions maybe counterbalanced by a direct simulation of ρ and both variance parameters since the profile likelihood of this triplet is truly in closed form, see eqn (2.11). And I will not comment the fact that Fisher ends up being the most quoted author in the paper!

Conditional love [guest post]

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 4, 2015 by xi'an

[When Dan Simpson told me he was reading Terenin’s and Draper’s latest arXival in a nice Bath pub—and not a nice bath tub!—, I asked him for a blog entry and he agreed. Here is his piece, read at your own risk! If you remember to skip the part about Céline Dion, you should enjoy it very much!!!]

Probability has traditionally been described, as per Kolmogorov and his ardent follower Katy Perry, unconditionally. This is, of course, excellent for those of us who really like measure theory, as the maths is identical. Unfortunately mathematical convenience is not necessarily enough and a large part of the applied statistical community is working with Bayesian methods. These are unavoidably conditional and, as such, it is natural to ask if there is a fundamentally conditional basis for probability.

Bruno de Finetti—and later Richard Cox and Edwin Jaynes—considered conditional bases for Bayesian probability that are, unfortunately, incomplete. The critical problem is that they mainly consider finite state spaces and construct finitely additive systems of conditional probability. For a variety of reasons, neither of these restrictions hold much truck in the modern world of statistics.

In a recently arXiv’d paper, Alexander Terenin and David Draper devise a set of axioms that make the Cox-Jaynes system of conditional probability rigorous. Furthermore, they show that the complete set of Kolmogorov axioms (including countable additivity) can be derived as theorems from their axioms by conditioning on the entire sample space.

This is a deep and fundamental paper, which unfortunately means that I most probably do not grasp it’s complexities (especially as, for some reason, I keep reading it in pubs!). However I’m going to have a shot at having some thoughts on it, because I feel like it’s the sort of paper one should have thoughts on. Continue reading

the (expected) demise of the Bayes factor [#2]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Running, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 1, 2015 by xi'an

AmsterXXFollowing my earlier comments on Alexander Ly, Josine Verhagen, and Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, from Amsterdam, Joris Mulder, a special issue editor of the Journal of Mathematical Psychology, kindly asked me for a written discussion of that paper, discussion that I wrote last week and arXived this weekend. Besides the above comments on ToP, this discussion contains some of my usual arguments against the use of the Bayes factor as well as a short introduction to our recent proposal via mixtures. Short introduction as I had to restrain myself from reproducing the arguments in the original paper, for fear it would jeopardize its chances of getting published and, who knows?, discussed.

Harold Jeffreys’ default Bayes factor [for psychologists]

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , on January 16, 2015 by xi'an

“One of Jeffreys’ goals was to create default Bayes factors by using prior distributions that obeyed a series of general desiderata.”

The paper Harold Jeffreys’s default Bayes factor hypothesis tests: explanation, extension, and application in Psychology by Alexander Ly, Josine Verhagen, and Eric-Jan Wagenmakers is both a survey and a reinterpretation cum explanation of Harold Jeffreys‘ views on testing. At about the same time, I received a copy from Alexander and a copy from the journal it had been submitted to! This work starts with a short historical entry on Jeffreys’ work and career, which includes four of his principles, quoted verbatim from the paper:

  1. “scientific progress depends primarily on induction”;
  2. “in order to formalize induction one requires a logic of partial belief” [enters the Bayesian paradigm];
  3. “scientific hypotheses can be assigned prior plausibility in accordance with their complexity” [a.k.a., Occam’s razor];
  4. “classical “Fisherian” p-values are inadequate for the purpose of hypothesis testing”.

“The choice of π(σ)  therefore irrelevant for the Bayes factor as long as we use the same weighting function in both models”

A very relevant point made by the authors is that Jeffreys only considered embedded or nested hypotheses, a fact that allows for having common parameters between models and hence some form of reference prior. Even though (a) I dislike the notion of “common” parameters and (b) I do not think it is entirely legit (I was going to write proper!) from a mathematical viewpoint to use the same (improper) prior on both sides, as discussed in our Statistical Science paper. And in our most recent alternative proposal. The most delicate issue however is to derive a reference prior on the parameter of interest, which is fixed under the null and unknown under the alternative. Hence preventing the use of improper priors. Jeffreys tried to calibrate the corresponding prior by imposing asymptotic consistency under the alternative. And exact indeterminacy under “completely uninformative” data. Unfortunately, this is not a well-defined notion. In the normal example, the authors recall and follow the proposal of Jeffreys to use an improper prior π(σ)∝1/σ on the nuisance parameter and argue in his defence the quote above. I find this argument quite weak because suddenly the prior on σ becomes a weighting function... A notion foreign to the Bayesian cosmology. If we use an improper prior for π(σ), the marginal likelihood on the data is no longer a probability density and I do not buy the argument that one should use the same measure with the same constant both on σ alone [for the nested hypothesis] and on the σ part of (μ,σ) [for the nesting hypothesis]. We are considering two spaces with different dimensions and hence orthogonal measures. This quote thus sounds more like wishful thinking than like a justification. Similarly, the assumption of independence between δ=μ/σ and σ does not make sense for σ-finite measures. Note that the authors later point out that (a) the posterior on σ varies between models despite using the same data [which shows that the parameter σ is far from common to both models!] and (b) the [testing] Cauchy prior on δ is only useful for the testing part and should be replaced with another [estimation] prior when the model has been selected. Which may end up as a backfiring argument about this default choice.

“Each updated weighting function should be interpreted as a posterior in estimating σ within their own context, the model.”

The re-derivation of Jeffreys’ conclusion that a Cauchy prior should be used on δ=μ/σ makes it clear that this choice only proceeds from an imperative of fat tails in the prior, without solving the calibration of the Cauchy scale. (Given the now-available modern computing tools, it would be nice to see the impact of this scale γ on the numerical value of the Bayes factor.) And maybe it also proceeds from a “hidden agenda” to achieve a Bayes factor that solely depends on the t statistic. Although this does not sound like a compelling reason to me, since the t statistic is not sufficient in this setting.

In a differently interesting way, the authors mention the Savage-Dickey ratio (p.16) as a way to represent the Bayes factor for nested models, without necessarily perceiving the mathematical difficulty with this ratio that we pointed out a few years ago. For instance, in the psychology example processed in the paper, the test is between δ=0 and δ≥0; however, if I set π(δ=0)=0 under the alternative prior, which should not matter [from a measure-theoretic perspective where the density is uniquely defined almost everywhere], the Savage-Dickey representation of the Bayes factor returns zero, instead of 9.18!

“In general, the fact that different priors result in different Bayes factors should not come as a surprise.”

The second example detailed in the paper is the test for a zero Gaussian correlation. This is a sort of “ideal case” in that the parameter of interest is between -1 and 1, hence makes the choice of a uniform U(-1,1) easy or easier to argue. Furthermore, the setting is also “ideal” in that the Bayes factor simplifies down into a marginal over the sample correlation only, under the usual Jeffreys priors on means and variances. So we have a second case where the frequentist statistic behind the frequentist test[ing procedure] is also the single (and insufficient) part of the data used in the Bayesian test[ing procedure]. Once again, we are in a setting where Bayesian and frequentist answers are in one-to-one correspondence (at least for a fixed sample size). And where the Bayes factor allows for a closed form through hypergeometric functions. Even in the one-sided case. (This is a result obtained by the authors, not by Jeffreys who, as the proper physicist he was, obtained approximations that are remarkably accurate!)

“The fact that the Bayes factor is independent of the intention with which the data have been collected is of considerable practical importance.”

The authors have a side argument in this section in favour of the Bayes factor against the p-value, namely that the “Bayes factor does not depend on the sampling plan” (p.29), but I find this fairly weak (or tongue in cheek) as the Bayes factor does depend on the sampling distribution imposed on top of the data. It appears that the argument is mostly used to defend sequential testing.

“The Bayes factor (…) balances the tension between parsimony and goodness of fit, (…) against overfitting the data.”

In fine, I liked very much this re-reading of Jeffreys’ approach to testing, maybe the more because I now think we should get away from it! I am not certain it will help in convincing psychologists to adopt Bayes factors for assessing their experiments as it may instead frighten them away. And it does not bring an answer to the vexing issue of the relevance of point null hypotheses. But it constitutes a lucid and innovative of the major advance represented by Jeffreys’ formalisation of Bayesian testing.

Albert Jacquard (1925-2013)

Posted in Books, Statistics with tags , , , , , , on September 21, 2013 by xi'an

Albert Jacquard passed away last week. He was a humanist, engaged in the defence of outcasts (laissés pour compte) like homeless and illegal immigrants. He had a regular chronicle of two minutes on France Culture that I used to listen to (when driving at that time of the day). In the obituaries published in the recent days, this side of the character was put forward, while very little was said about his scientific legacy. He was a statistician, first at INSEE, then at INED. After getting a PhD in genetics from Stanford in 1968, he got back to INED as a population geneticist, writing in 1978 his most famous book, Éloge de la Différence, against racial theories, which is the first in a long series of vulgarisation and philosophical books. Among his scientific books, he wrote the entry on Probabilités in the popular vulgarisation series “Que Sais-Je?”, with more than 40,000 copies sold and used by generations of students. (Among its 125 pages, the imposed length for a  “Que Sais-Je?”, the book includes Bayes theorem and, more importantly, the Bayesian approach to estimating unknown probabilities!)

who’s afraid of the big B wolf?

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2013 by xi'an

Aris Spanos just published a paper entitled “Who should be afraid of the Jeffreys-Lindley paradox?” in the journal Philosophy of Science. This piece is a continuation of the debate about frequentist versus llikelihoodist versus Bayesian (should it be Bayesianist?! or Laplacist?!) testing approaches, exposed in Mayo and Spanos’ Error and Inference, and discussed in several posts of the ‘Og. I started reading the paper in conjunction with a paper I am currently writing for a special volume in  honour of Dennis Lindley, paper that I will discuss later on the ‘Og…

“…the postdata severity evaluation (…) addresses the key problem with Fisherian p-values in the sense that the severity evaluation provides the “magnitude” of the warranted discrepancy from the null by taking into account the generic capacity of the test (that includes n) in question as it relates to the observed data”(p.88)

First, the antagonistic style of the paper is reminding me of Spanos’ previous works in that it relies on repeated value judgements (such as “Bayesian charge”, “blatant misinterpretation”, “Bayesian allegations that have undermined the credibility of frequentist statistics”, “both approaches are far from immune to fallacious interpretations”, “only crude rules of thumbs”, &tc.) and rhetorical sleights of hand. (See, e.g., “In contrast, the severity account ensures learning from data by employing trustworthy evidence (…), the reliability of evidence being calibrated in terms of the relevant error probabilities” [my stress].) Connectedly, Spanos often resorts to an unusual [at least for statisticians] vocabulary that amounts to newspeak. Here are some illustrations: “summoning the generic capacity of the test”, ‘substantively significant”, “custom tailoring the generic capacity of the test”, “the fallacy of acceptance”, “the relevance of the generic capacity of the particular test”, yes the term “generic capacity” is occurring there with a truly high frequency. Continue reading

17 equations that changed the World (#2)

Posted in Books, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2012 by xi'an

(continuation of the book review)

If you placed your finger at that point, the two halves of the string would still be able to vibrate in the sin 2x pattern, but not in the sin x one. This explains the Pythagorean discovery that a string half as long produced a note one octave higher.” (p.143)

The following chapters are all about Physics: the wave equation, Fourier’s transform and the heat equation, Navier-Stokes’ equation(s), Maxwell’s equation(s)—as in  The universe in zero word—, the second law of thermodynamics, E=mc² (of course!), and Schrödinger’s equation. I won’t go so much into details for those chapters, even though they are remarkably written. For instance, the chapter on waves made me understand the notion of harmonics in a much more intuitive and lasting way than previous readings. (This chapter 8 also mentions the “English mathematician Harold Jeffreys“, while Jeffreys was primarily a geophysicist. And a Bayesian statistician with major impact on the field, his Theory of Probability arguably being the first modern Bayesian book. Interestingly, Jeffreys also was the first one to find approximations to the Schrödinger’s equation, however he is not mentioned in this later chapter.) Chapter 9 mentions the heat equation but is truly about Fourier’s transform which he uses as a tool and later became a universal technique. It also covers Lebesgue’s integration theory, wavelets, and JPEG compression. Chapter 10 on Navier-Stokes’ equation also mentions climate sciences, where it takes a (reasonable) stand. Chapter 11 on Maxwell’s equations is a short introduction to electromagnetism, with radio the obvious illustration. (Maybe not the best chapter in the book.) Continue reading


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