## Bayes Rules! [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, R, Running, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2022 by xi'an

Bayes Rules! is a new introductory textbook on Applied Bayesian Model(l)ing, written by Alicia Johnson (Macalester College), Miles Ott (Johnson & Johnson), and Mine Dogucu (University of California Irvine). Textbook sent to me by CRC Press for review. It is available (free) online as a website and has a github site, as well as a bayesrule R package. (Which reminds me that both our own book R packages, bayess and mcsm, have gone obsolete on CRAN! And that I should find time to figure out the issue for an upgrading…)

As far as I can tell [from abroad and from only teaching students with a math background], Bayes Rules! seems to be catering to early (US) undergraduate students with very little exposure to mathematical statistics or probability, as it introduces basic probability notions like pmf, joint distribution, and Bayes’ theorem (as well as Greek letters!) and shies away from integration or algebra (a covariance matrix occurs on page 437 with a lot . For instance, the Normal-Normal conjugacy derivation is considered a “mouthful” (page 113). The exposition is somewhat stretched along the 500⁺ pages as a result, imho, which is presumably a feature shared with most textbooks at this level, and, accordingly, the exercises and quizzes are more about intuition and reproducing the contents of the chapter than technical. In fact, I did not spot there a mention of sufficiency, consistency, posterior concentration (almost made on page 113), improper priors, ergodicity, irreducibility, &tc., while other notions are not precisely defined, like ESS, weakly informative (page 234) or vague priors (page 77), prior information—which makes the negative answer to the quiz “All priors are informative”  (page 90) rather confusing—, R-hat, density plot, scaled likelihood, and more.

As an alternative to “technical derivations” Bayes Rules! centres on intuition and simulation (yay!) via its bayesrule R package. Itself relying on rstan. Learning from example (as R code is always provided), the book proceeds through conjugate priors, MCMC (Metropolis-Hasting) methods, regression models, and hierarchical regression models. Quite impressive given the limited prerequisites set by the authors. (I appreciated the representations of the prior-likelihood-posterior, especially in the sequential case.)

Regarding the “hot tip” (page 108) that the posterior mean always stands between the prior mean and the data mean, this should be made conditional on a conjugate setting and a mean parameterisation. Defining MCMC as a method that produces a sequence of realisations that are not from the target makes a point, except of course that there are settings where the realisations are from the target, for instance after a renewal event. Tuning MCMC should remain a partial mystery to readers after reading Chapter 7 as the Goldilocks principle is quite vague. Similarly, the derivation of the hyperparameters in a novel setting (not covered by the book) should prove a challenge, even though the readers are encouraged to “go forth and do some Bayes things” (page 509).

While Bayes factors are supported for some hypothesis testing (with no point null), model comparison follows more exploratory methods like X validation and expected log-predictive comparison.

The examples and exercises are diverse (if mostly US centric), modern (including cultural references that completely escape me), and often reflect on the authors’ societal concerns. In particular, their concern about a fair use of the inferred models is preminent, even though a quantitative assessment of the degree of fairness would require a much more advanced perspective than the book allows… (In that respect, Exercise 18.2 and the following ones are about book banning (in the US). Given the progressive tone of the book, and the recent ban of math textbooks in the US, I wonder if some conservative boards would consider banning it!) Concerning the Himalaya submitting running example (Chapters 18 & 19), where the probability to summit is conditional on the age of the climber and the use of additional oxygen, I am somewhat surprised that the altitude of the targeted peak is not included as a covariate. For instance, Ama Dablam (6848 m) is compared with Annapurna I (8091 m), which has the highest fatality-to-summit ratio (38%) of all. This should matter more than age: the Aosta guide Abele Blanc climbed Annapurna without oxygen at age 57! More to the point, the (practical) detailed examples do not bring unexpected conclusions, as for instance the fact that runners [thrice alas!] tend to slow down with age.

A geographical comment: Uluru (page 267) is not a city!, but an impressive sandstone monolith in the heart of Australia, a 5 hours drive away from Alice Springs. And historical mentions: Alan Turing (page 10) and the team at Bletchley Park indeed used Bayes factors (and sequential analysis) in cracking the Enigma, but this remained classified information for quite a while. Arianna Rosenbluth (page 10, but missing on page 165) was indeed a major contributor to Metropolis et al.  (1953, not cited), but would not qualify as a Bayesian statistician as the goal of their algorithm was a characterisation of the Boltzman (or Gibbs) distribution, not statistical inference. And David Blackwell’s (page 10) Basic Statistics is possibly the earliest instance of an introductory Bayesian and decision-theory textbook, but it never mentions Bayes or Bayesianism.

[Disclaimer about potential self-plagiarism: this post or an edited version will eventually appear in my Book Review section in CHANCE.]

## 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!]