**A**s pointed out by Peter Coles on his blog, In the Dark, Hyungsuk Tak, Sujit Ghosh, and Justin Ellis just arXived a review of the unsafe use of improper priors in astronomy papers, 24 out of 75 having failed to establish that the corresponding posteriors are well-defined. And they exhibit such an instance (of impropriety) in a MNRAS paper by Pihajoki (2017), which is a complexification of Gelfand et al. (1990), also used by Jim Hobert in his thesis. (Even though the formal argument used to show the impropriety of the posterior in Pihajoki’s paper does not sound right since it considers divergence at a single value of a parameter β.) Besides repeating this warning about an issue that was rather quickly identified in the infancy of MCMC, if not in the very first publications on the Gibbs sampler, the paper seems to argue against using improper priors due to this potential danger, stating that instead proper priors that include all likely values and beyond are to be preferred. Which reminds me of the BUGS feature of using a N(0,10⁹) prior instead of the flat prior, missing the fact that “very large” variances do impact the resulting inference (if only for the issue of model comparison, remember Lindley-Jeffreys!). And are informative in that sense. However, it is obviously a good idea to advise checking for propriety (!) and using such alternatives may come as a safety button, providing a comparison benchmark to spot possible divergences in the resulting inference.

## Archive for vague priors

## improperties on an astronomical scale

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics with tags astronomy, astrostatistics, Bayesian inference, BUGS, improper posteriors, impropriety, noninformative priors, vague priors on December 15, 2017 by xi'an## Approximate Bayesian model choice

Posted in Books, R, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags ABC, ABC model selection, 真夏方程式, Detective Galileo, empirical Bayes methods, integrated likelihood, Jeffreys-Lindley paradox, model posterior probabilities, Montréal, vague priors on March 17, 2014 by xi'anThe above is the running head of the arXived paper with full title “Implications of uniformly distributed, empirically informed priors for phylogeographical model selection: A reply to Hickerson et al.” by Oaks, Linkem and Sukuraman. That I (again) read in the plane to Montréal (third one in this series!, and last because I also watched the Japanese psycho-thriller Midsummer’s Equation featuring a physicist turned detective in one of many TV episodes. I just found some common features with The Devotion of Suspect X, only to discover now that the book has been turned into another episode in the series.)

“Here we demonstrate that the approach of Hickerson et al. (2014) is dangerous in the sense that the empirically-derived priors often exclude from consideration the true values of the models’ parameters. On a more fundamental level, we question the value of adopting an empirical Bayesian stance for this model-choice problem, because it can mislead model posterior probabilities, which are inherently measures of belief in the models after prior knowledge is updated by the data.”

**T**his paper actually is a reply to Hickerson et al. (2014, *Evolution*), which is itself a reply to an earlier paper by Oaks et al. (2013, Evolution). *[Warning: I did not check those earlier references!]* The authors object to the use of “narrow, empirically informed uniform priors” for the reason reproduced in the above quote. In connection with the msBayes of Huang et al. (2011, *BMC Bioinformatics*). The discussion is less about ABC used for model choice and posterior probabilities of models and more about the impact of vague priors, Oaks et al. (2013) arguing that this leads to a bias towards models with less parameters, a “statistical issue” in their words, while Hickerson et al. (2014) think this is due to msBayes way of selecting models and their parameters at random.

“…it is difficult to choose a uniformly distributed prior on divergence times that is broad enough to confidently contain the true values of parameters while being narrow enough to avoid spurious support of models with less parameter space.”

**S**o quite an interesting debate that takes us in fine far away from the usual worries about ABC model choice! We are more at the level empirical versus natural Bayes, seen in the literature of the 80’s. (The meaning of empirical Bayes is not that clear in the early pages as the authors seem to involve any method using the data “twice”.) I actually do not remember reading papers about the formal properties of model choice done through classical empirical Bayes techniques. Except the special case of Aitkin’s (1991,2009) integrated likelihood. Which is essentially the analysis performed on the coin toy example (p.7)

“…models with more divergence parameters will be forced to integrate over much greater parameter space, all with equal prior density, and much of it with low likelihood.”

**T**he above argument is an interesting rephrasing of Lindley’s paradox, which I cannot dispute, but of course it does not solve the fundamental issue of how to choose the prior away from vague uniform priors… I also like the quote “the estimated posterior probability of a model is a single value (rather than a distribution) lacking a measure of posterior uncertainty” as this is an issue on which we are currently working. I fully agree with the statement and we think an alternative assessment to posterior probabilities could be more appropriate for model selection in ABC settings (paper soon to come, hopefully!).