Estimation vs. Inference

I went to Marti Anderson’s talk at UC BIDS yesterday where she introduced a generalization of mixed model ANOVA which uses a correction factor in the estimation which essentially corrects for how random your random effects are.  She showed that if your random effects are actually close to fixed, then you gain statistical power by setting the correction factor close to 0.  This was all good until after the talk, somebody asked a question to the effect of “well I thought the big difference between fixed and random effect models was that your data don’t have to be normal for fixed effects, so how does that come into play here?”

The answer: it doesn’t.  Nowhere in her talk did Marti mention a normality assumption the data.  P-values for the were computed using permutation tests, which make no assumptions about the underlying distribution of your data.  All you need to use a permutation test is an invariance or symmetry assumption about your data under the null hypothesis: for example, if biological sex had no relation to height, then the distributions of male and female heights should be identical and we relabeled people male or female at random, the height distributions wouldn’t change.

People often confuse the assumptions needed to estimate parameters from their models and the assumptions to create confidence intervals and do hypothesis tests.  The most salient example is linear regression.  Even without making any assumptions, you can always fit a line to your data.  That’s because ordinary least squares is just an estimation procedure: given covariates X and outcomes Y, all you need to do is solve a linear equation.  Does that mean your estimate is good?  Not necessarily, and you need some assumptions to ensure that it is.  These are that your measurement errors are on average 0, they have the same variance (homoskedasticity), and they’re uncorrelated.  Then your regression line will be unbiased and your coefficient estimates will be “best” in a statistical sense (this is the Gauss-Markov theorem).  Of course, for this to work you also need more data points than parameters, no (near) duplicated covariates, and a linear relationship between Y and X, but hopefully you aren’t trying to use ordinary least squares if these don’t hold for your data!

Notice that there are no normality assumptions for the Gauss-Markov theorem to hold; you just need to assume a few things about the distribution of your Y data that can sort of be checked.  Normal theory only comes into play if you want to use “nice” well-known distributions to construct confidence intervals.  If you assume your errors are independent and identically distributed Gaussian mean-0 noise with common variance, then you can carry out F-tests for model selection and use the t-distribution to construct confidence intervals and to test whether your coefficients are significantly different from 0.

This is what usual statistical packages spit out at you when you run a linear regression, whether or not the normality assumptions hold.  The estimates of the parameters might be ok regardless, but your confidence intervals and p-values might be too small.  This is where permutation tests come in: you can still test your coefficients using a distribution-free test.

As an example, I’ve simulated data and done ordinary least squares in R, then compared the output of the lm function to the confidence intervals I construct by permutation tests.*  I’m just doing a simple univariate case so it’s easy to visualize.  The permutation test will test the null hypothesis that the regression coefficient is 0 by assuming there is no relationship between X and Y, so pairs are as if at random.  I scramble the order of the Xs to eliminate any relationship between X and Y, then rerun the linear model.  Doing this 1000 times gives an approximate distribution of regression coefficients if there were no association.


I generated 100 random X values, then simulated errors in two ways.  First, I generated independent and identically distributed Gaussian errors e1 and let Y=2X + e1. I ran linear models and permutation tests for both to get the following 95% confidence intervals:

> confint(mod1,2) # t test
2.5 % 97.5 %
X 1.917913 2.068841
> print(conf_perm1) # permutation test
1.598273 2.388481

When the normality assumptions are true, then we get smaller confidence intervals using the t-distribution than using permutation tests. That makes sense – we lose efficiency when we ignore information we know.

Then I generated random double exponential (heavy-tailed distribution) errors e2 that increase with X, so they break two assumptions for using t-tests for inference, and let Z = 2X + e2.  The least squares fit is very good, judging by the scatterplot of Z against X – the line goes right through the middle of the data.  There’s nothing wrong with the estimate of the coefficient, but the inference based on normal theory can’t be right.

> confint(mod2,2) # t test
2.5 % 97.5 %
X 1.716465 2.348086
> print(conf_perm2) # permutation test
1.531020 2.533531

Again, we get smaller confidence intervals for the t-test, but these are simply wrong.  They are artificially small because we made unfounded assumptions in using the t-test intervals; perhaps this points to one reason why so many research findings are false.  It’s this very reason that it’s important to keep in mind what assumptions you’re making when you carry out statistical inference on  estimates you obtain from your data – nonparametric tests may be the way to go.

* My simulation code is on Github.


Gut microbe levels and obesity, part 2

After Monday’s post on the gut microbiota, I found a study from a few weeks ago that links exercise and microbiota diversity.  Specifically, the authors found that athletes in their study had greater diversity of gut microbe species than controls, suggesting that they have better digestion and metabolism.  The authors compared the diet and exercise of male rugby players to a sample of controls.  Their main results included:

  • Athletes had higher levels of plasma creatine kinase, a biomarker for exercise, than controls
  • The gut microbiota of athletes was more diverse than that of controls, and diversity was correlated with creatine kinase levels
  • Athletes’ diets were comprised of more protein and supplements than controls, and gut microbiota diversity was correlated with protein intake

So exercise is good for our gut?  Not necessarily.  Diet and exercise go hand in hand.  In this case, athletes had both increased creatine kinase and increased protein consumption, and both were correlated with microbial diversity.  It has been shown before that diet directly affects microbiota diversity, but from this study we can’t pick apart the causal relationship between these three things.  To say that exercise has an impact on diversity suggests that the first diagram below is the causal model, but really it could be any of the three, or a more complicated one entirely.dagitty-model-2dagitty-model-4 dagitty-model-3

Fortunately, the authors acknowledge this limitation:

Further, intervention-based studies to tease apart this relationship will be important and provide further insights into optimal therapies to influence the gut microbiota and its relationship with health and disease.

It will be interesting to follow this lead.  In the mean time, go for a run.

Causal diagrams were made with DAGitty v2.0

We’re all Bayesians

Human decisions can be viewed as a probabilistic problem: in a world full of uncertainty, how do we understand what we observe and respond rationally?  Decision-making, inductive reasoning, and learning have all been modeled using Bayes’ theorem, which says that the probability of event A given that event B occurs (the posterior) depends on certain known or estimatable probabilities: the probability, without any other information, of event A happening (the prior), the probability of B occurring given that A has occurred (the likelihood), and the probability of B occurring (the model evidence).  In an article published today, Acerbi et al. looked at factors that make our probabilistic inference suboptimal.

For example, suppose we want to decide whether to wear a dress or pants.  The decision probably depends on whether or not we believe it will be a hot day (event A).  We’d probably just check to make a rational decision or just choose the outfit we like the best regardless of the weather, but suppose all we have at our disposal is memory of the temperatures last summer (event B).  What we want to know is the chance that today will be hot given our knowledge of what summer weather is typically like.  We probably have a prior idea about what today’s weather will be like, knowledge of typical summer weather, and some level of confidence in our understanding of last summer’s weather.  We have all the quantities needed to apply Bayes’ rule and pick out our outfit for the day.

Of course, nobody sits down and computes the posterior probability of a sunny day every morning by thinking about the prior.  And this is where we have trouble making decisions:

if prior experience has complex patterns, we might require more trial-and-error before finding the optimal solution. This partly explains why, for example, a person deciding the appropriate clothes to wear for the weather on a June day in Italy has a higher chance of success than her counterpart in Scotland.

In this example, the prior distribution of temperatures on a June day in Italy might be centered around a high temperature, whereas the distribution for Scotland might have two peaks or be somewhat flat.  We’d assume that it would be easier to guess the average of a Gaussian distribution than a more complicated or skewed one.  To see how this plays out in rational decision-making, the authors tested peoples’ ability to predict the location of a target using a variety of different prior distributions.  They concluded,

This finding suggests that human efficacy at probabilistic inference is only mildly affected by complexity of the prior per se, at least for the distributions we have used. Conversely, the process of learning priors is considerably affected by the class of the distribution: for instance, learning a bimodal prior (when it is learnt at all) can require thousands of trials, whereas mean and variance of a single Gaussian can be acquired reliably within a few hundred trials.

We might have a harder time figuring out patterns of weather in Scotland than in Italy, but the paper suggests that we’d have an equally difficult time deciding what to wear in either country.  Perhaps we just disregard Bayes’ law and make irrational decisions based on our emotions or personal biases.