Archive for 2008-08-17

The Harmonic Mean of the Likelihood: Worst Monte Carlo Method Ever

Many Bayesian statisticians decide which of several models is most appropriate for a given dataset by computing the marginal likelihood of each model (also called the integrated likelihood or the evidence). The marginal likelihood is the probability that the model gives to the observed data, averaging over values of its parameters with respect to their prior distribution. If x is the entire dataset and t is the entire set of parameters, then the marginal likelihood is

P(x) \ =\ \int P(x|t)\, P(t)\, dt

Here, I use P(x) and so forth to represent a probability density or mass function, as appropriate. After P(x) has been computed for all models (which may well have different sorts of parameters), the model with largest marginal likelihood is chosen, or more elaborately, predictions might be made by averaging over all models, with weights proportional to their marginal likelihoods (perhaps multiplied by a prior factor for each model).

Use of the marginal likelihood to evaluate models is often rather dubious, because it is very sensitive to any flaws in the specifications of the priors for the parameters of each model. That may be a topic for a future post, but I’ll ignore that issue here, and talk instead about how people try to compute the marginal likelihood.

Computing P(x) is difficult, because it’s an integral of what is usually a highly variable function over what is typically a high dimensional parameter space. Of course, for some models the integral is analytically tractable (typically ones with conjugate priors), and if the parameter space is low-dimensional, brute-force numerical integration may work. For most interesting models, however, the only known way of accurately computing P(x) is by applying quite sophisticated Monte Carlo techniques, which have long been researched by physicists in order to solve the essentially identical problem of computing “free energies”. See, for example, Section 6.2 of my review of Probabilistic Inference Using Markov Chain Monte Carlo Methods, and my paper on Annealed Importance Sampling.

These sophisticated techniques aren’t too well-known, however. They also take substantial effort to implement and substantial amounts of computer time. So it’s maybe not surprising that many people have been tempted by what seems like a much easier method — compute the harmonic mean of the likelihood with respect to the posterior distribution, using the same Markov Chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) runs that they have usually already done to estimate parameters or make predictions based on each model.


2008-08-17 at 12:09 am 36 comments


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