Bayesian Data Analysis [BDA3]

March 27, 2014

(This article was first published on Xi'an's Og » R, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

Andrew Gelman and his coauthors, John Carlin, Hal Stern, David Dunson, Aki Vehtari, and Don Rubin, have now published the latest edition of their book Bayesian Data Analysis. David and Aki are newcomers to the authors’ list, with an extended section on non-linear and non-parametric models. I have been asked by Sam Behseta to write a review of this new edition for JASA (since Sam is now the JASA book review editor). After wondering about my ability to produce an objective review (on the one hand, this is The Competition  to Bayesian Essentials!, on the other hand Andrew is a good friend spending the year with me in Paris), I decided to jump for it and write a most subjective review, with the help of Clara Grazian who was Andrew’s teaching assistant this year in Paris and maybe some of my Master students who took Andrew’s course. The second edition was reviewed in the September 2004 issue of JASA and we now stand ten years later with an even more impressive textbook. Which truly what Bayesian data analysis should be.

This edition has five parts, Fundamentals of Bayesian Inference, Fundamentals of Bayesian Data Analysis, Advanced Computation, Regression Models, and Non-linear and Non-parametric Models, plus three appendices. For a total of xiv+662 pages. And a weight of 2.9 pounds (1395g on my kitchen scale!) that makes it hard to carry around in the metro…. I took it to Warwick (and then Nottingham and Oxford and back to Paris) instead.

We could avoid the mathematical effort of checking the integrability of the posterior density (…) The result would clearly show the posterior contour drifting off toward infinity.” (p.111)

While I cannot go into a detailed reading of those 662 pages (!), I want to highlight a few gems. (I already wrote a detailed and critical analysis of Chapter 6 on model checking in that post.) The very first chapter provides all the necessary items for understanding Bayesian Data Analysis without getting bogged in propaganda or pseudo-philosophy. Then the other chapters of the first part unroll in a smooth way, cruising on the B highway… With the unique feature of introducing weakly informative priors (Sections 2.9 and 5.7), like the half-Cauchy distribution on scale parameters. It may not be completely clear how weak a weakly informative prior, but this novel notion is worth including in a textbook. Maybe a mild reproach at this stage: Chapter 5 on hierarchical models is too verbose for my taste, as it essentially focus on the hierarchical linear model. Of course, this is an essential chapter as it links exchangeability, the “atom” of Bayesian reasoning used by de Finetti, with hierarchical models. Still. Another comment on that chapter: it broaches on the topic of improper posteriors by suggesting to run a Markov chain that can exhibit improperness by enjoying an improper behaviour. When it happens as in the quote above, fine!, but there is no guarantee this is always the case! For instance, improperness may be due to regions near zero rather than infinity. And a last barb: there is a dense table (Table 5.4, p.124) that seems to run contrariwise to Andrew’s avowed dislike of tables. I could also object at the idea of a “true prior distribution” (p.128), or comment on the trivia that hierarchical chapters seem to attract rats (as I also included a rat example in the hierarchical Bayes chapter of Bayesian Choice and so does the BUGS Book! Hence, a conclusion that Bayesian textbooks are better be avoided by muriphobiacs…)

“Bayes factors do not work well for models that are inherently continuous (…) Because we emphasize continuous families of models rather than discrete choices, Bayes factors are rarely relevant in our approach to Bayesian statistics.” (p.183 & p.193)

Part II is about “the creative choices that are required, first to set up a Bayesian model in a complex problem, then to perform the model checking and confidence building that is typically necessary to make posterior inferences scientifically defensible” (p.139). It is certainly one of the strengths of the book that it allows for a critical look at models and tools that are rarely discussed in more theoretical Bayesian books. As detailed in my  earlier post on Chapter 6, model checking is strongly advocated, via posterior predictive checks and… posterior predictive p-values, which are at best empirical indicators that something could be wrong, definitely not that everything’s allright! Chapter 7 is the model comparison equivalent of Chapter 6, starting with the predictive density (aka the evidence or the marginal likelihood), but completely bypassing the Bayes factor for information criteria like the Watanabe-Akaike or widely available information criterion (WAIC), and advocating cross-validation, which is empirically satisfying but formally hard to integrate within a full Bayesian perspective. Chapter 8 is about data collection, sample surveys, randomization and related topics, another entry that is missing from most Bayesian textbooks, maybe not that surprising given the research topics of some of the authors. And Chapter 9 is the symmetric in that it focus on the post-modelling step of decision making.

(Second part of the review to appear on Monday, leaving readers the weekend to recover!)

Filed under: Books, Kids, R, Statistics, University life Tagged: Andrew Gelman, Bayesian data analysis, Bayesian model choice, Bayesian predictive, finite mixtures, graduate course, hierarchical Bayesian modelling, rats, STAN

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