Statistical inference

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Statistical inference is the process of using data analysis to infer properties of an underlying distribution of probability. [1] Inferential statistical analysis infers properties of a population, for example by testing hypotheses and deriving estimates. It is assumed that the observed data set is sampled from a larger population.

Contents

Inferential statistics can be contrasted with descriptive statistics. Descriptive statistics is solely concerned with properties of the observed data, and it does not rest on the assumption that the data come from a larger population. In machine learning, the term inference is sometimes used instead to mean "make a prediction, by evaluating an already trained model"; [2] in this context inferring properties of the model is referred to as training or learning (rather than inference), and using a model for prediction is referred to as inference (instead of prediction); see also predictive inference.

Introduction

Statistical inference makes propositions about a population, using data drawn from the population with some form of sampling. Given a hypothesis about a population, for which we wish to draw inferences, statistical inference consists of (first) selecting a statistical model of the process that generates the data and (second) deducing propositions from the model.[ citation needed ]

Konishi & Kitagawa state, "The majority of the problems in statistical inference can be considered to be problems related to statistical modeling". [3] Relatedly, Sir David Cox has said, "How [the] translation from subject-matter problem to statistical model is done is often the most critical part of an analysis". [4]

The conclusion of a statistical inference is a statistical proposition. [5] Some common forms of statistical proposition are the following:

Models and assumptions

Any statistical inference requires some assumptions. A statistical model is a set of assumptions concerning the generation of the observed data and similar data. Descriptions of statistical models usually emphasize the role of population quantities of interest, about which we wish to draw inference. [6] Descriptive statistics are typically used as a preliminary step before more formal inferences are drawn. [7]

Degree of models/assumptions

Statisticians distinguish between three levels of modeling assumptions;

• Fully parametric : The probability distributions describing the data-generation process are assumed to be fully described by a family of probability distributions involving only a finite number of unknown parameters. [6] For example, one may assume that the distribution of population values is truly Normal, with unknown mean and variance, and that datasets are generated by 'simple' random sampling. The family of generalized linear models is a widely used and flexible class of parametric models.
• Non-parametric : The assumptions made about the process generating the data are much less than in parametric statistics and may be minimal. [8] For example, every continuous probability distribution has a median, which may be estimated using the sample median or the Hodges–Lehmann–Sen estimator, which has good properties when the data arise from simple random sampling.
• Semi-parametric : This term typically implies assumptions 'in between' fully and non-parametric approaches. For example, one may assume that a population distribution has a finite mean. Furthermore, one may assume that the mean response level in the population depends in a truly linear manner on some covariate (a parametric assumption) but not make any parametric assumption describing the variance around that mean (i.e. about the presence or possible form of any heteroscedasticity). More generally, semi-parametric models can often be separated into 'structural' and 'random variation' components. One component is treated parametrically and the other non-parametrically. The well-known Cox model is a set of semi-parametric assumptions.

Importance of valid models/assumptions

Whatever level of assumption is made, correctly calibrated inference, in general, requires these assumptions to be correct; i.e. that the data-generating mechanisms really have been correctly specified.

Incorrect assumptions of ' simple' random sampling can invalidate statistical inference. [9] More complex semi- and fully parametric assumptions are also cause for concern. For example, incorrectly assuming the Cox model can in some cases lead to faulty conclusions. [10] Incorrect assumptions of Normality in the population also invalidates some forms of regression-based inference. [11] The use of any parametric model is viewed skeptically by most experts in sampling human populations: "most sampling statisticians, when they deal with confidence intervals at all, limit themselves to statements about [estimators] based on very large samples, where the central limit theorem ensures that these [estimators] will have distributions that are nearly normal." [12] In particular, a normal distribution "would be a totally unrealistic and catastrophically unwise assumption to make if we were dealing with any kind of economic population." [12] Here, the central limit theorem states that the distribution of the sample mean "for very large samples" is approximately normally distributed, if the distribution is not heavy-tailed.

Approximate distributions

Given the difficulty in specifying exact distributions of sample statistics, many methods have been developed for approximating these.

With finite samples, approximation results measure how close a limiting distribution approaches the statistic's sample distribution: For example, with 10,000 independent samples the normal distribution approximates (to two digits of accuracy) the distribution of the sample mean for many population distributions, by the Berry–Esseen theorem. [13] Yet for many practical purposes, the normal approximation provides a good approximation to the sample-mean's distribution when there are 10 (or more) independent samples, according to simulation studies and statisticians' experience. [13] Following Kolmogorov's work in the 1950s, advanced statistics uses approximation theory and functional analysis to quantify the error of approximation. In this approach, the metric geometry of probability distributions is studied; this approach quantifies approximation error with, for example, the Kullback–Leibler divergence, Bregman divergence, and the Hellinger distance. [14] [15] [16]

With indefinitely large samples, limiting results like the central limit theorem describe the sample statistic's limiting distribution if one exists. Limiting results are not statements about finite samples, and indeed are irrelevant to finite samples. [17] [18] [19] However, the asymptotic theory of limiting distributions is often invoked for work with finite samples. For example, limiting results are often invoked to justify the generalized method of moments and the use of generalized estimating equations, which are popular in econometrics and biostatistics. The magnitude of the difference between the limiting distribution and the true distribution (formally, the 'error' of the approximation) can be assessed using simulation. [20] The heuristic application of limiting results to finite samples is common practice in many applications, especially with low-dimensional models with log-concave likelihoods (such as with one-parameter exponential families).

Randomization-based models

For a given dataset that was produced by a randomization design, the randomization distribution of a statistic (under the null-hypothesis) is defined by evaluating the test statistic for all of the plans that could have been generated by the randomization design. In frequentist inference, the randomization allows inferences to be based on the randomization distribution rather than a subjective model, and this is important especially in survey sampling and design of experiments. [21] [22] Statistical inference from randomized studies is also more straightforward than many other situations. [23] [24] [25] In Bayesian inference, randomization is also of importance: in survey sampling, use of sampling without replacement ensures the exchangeability of the sample with the population; in randomized experiments, randomization warrants a missing at random assumption for covariate information. [26]

Objective randomization allows properly inductive procedures. [27] [28] [29] [30] [31] Many statisticians prefer randomization-based analysis of data that was generated by well-defined randomization procedures. [32] (However, it is true that in fields of science with developed theoretical knowledge and experimental control, randomized experiments may increase the costs of experimentation without improving the quality of inferences. [33] [34] ) Similarly, results from randomized experiments are recommended by leading statistical authorities as allowing inferences with greater reliability than do observational studies of the same phenomena. [35] However, a good observational study may be better than a bad randomized experiment.

The statistical analysis of a randomized experiment may be based on the randomization scheme stated in the experimental protocol and does not need a subjective model. [36] [37]

However, at any time, some hypotheses cannot be tested using objective statistical models, which accurately describe randomized experiments or random samples. In some cases, such randomized studies are uneconomical or unethical.

Model-based analysis of randomized experiments

It is standard practice to refer to a statistical model, e.g., a linear or logistic models, when analyzing data from randomized experiments. [38] However, the randomization scheme guides the choice of a statistical model. It is not possible to choose an appropriate model without knowing the randomization scheme. [22] Seriously misleading results can be obtained analyzing data from randomized experiments while ignoring the experimental protocol; common mistakes include forgetting the blocking used in an experiment and confusing repeated measurements on the same experimental unit with independent replicates of the treatment applied to different experimental units. [39]

Model-free randomization inference

Model-free techniques provide a complement to model-based methods, which employ reductionist strategies of reality-simplification. The former combine, evolve, ensemble and train algorithms dynamically adapting to the contextual affinities of a process and learning the intrinsic characteristics of the observations. [38] [40]

For example, model-free simple linear regression is based either on

• a random design, where the pairs of observations ${\displaystyle (X_{1},Y_{1}),(X_{2},Y_{2}),\cdots ,(X_{n},Y_{n})}$ are independent and identically distributed (iid), or
• a deterministic design, where the variables ${\displaystyle X_{1},X_{2},\cdots ,X_{n}}$ are deterministic, but the corresponding response variables ${\displaystyle Y_{1},Y_{2},\cdots ,Y_{n}}$ are random and independent with a common conditional distribution, i.e., ${\displaystyle P\left(Y_{j}\leq y|X_{j}=x\right)=D_{x}(y)}$, which is independent of the index ${\displaystyle j}$.

In either case, the model-free randomization inference for features of the common conditional distribution ${\displaystyle D_{x}(.)}$ relies on some regularity conditions, e.g. functional smoothness. For instance, model-free randomization inference for the population feature conditional mean, ${\displaystyle \mu (x)=E(Y|X=x)}$, can be consistently estimated via local averaging or local polynomial fitting, under the assumption that ${\displaystyle \mu (x)}$ is smooth. Also, relying on asymptotic normality or resampling, we can construct confidence intervals for the population feature, in this case, the conditional mean, ${\displaystyle \mu (x)}$. [41]

Different schools of statistical inference have become established. These schoolsor "paradigms"are not mutually exclusive, and methods that work well under one paradigm often have attractive interpretations under other paradigms.

Bandyopadhyay & Forster [42] describe four paradigms: "(i) classical statistics or error statistics, (ii) Bayesian statistics, (iii) likelihood-based statistics, and (iv) the Akaikean-Information Criterion-based statistics". The classical (or frequentist) paradigm, the Bayesian paradigm, the likelihoodist paradigm, and the AIC-based paradigm are summarized below.

Frequentist inference

This paradigm calibrates the plausibility of propositions by considering (notional) repeated sampling of a population distribution to produce datasets similar to the one at hand. By considering the dataset's characteristics under repeated sampling, the frequentist properties of a statistical proposition can be quantified—although in practice this quantification may be challenging.

Frequentist inference, objectivity, and decision theory

One interpretation of frequentist inference (or classical inference) is that it is applicable only in terms of frequency probability; that is, in terms of repeated sampling from a population. However, the approach of Neyman [43] develops these procedures in terms of pre-experiment probabilities. That is, before undertaking an experiment, one decides on a rule for coming to a conclusion such that the probability of being correct is controlled in a suitable way: such a probability need not have a frequentist or repeated sampling interpretation. In contrast, Bayesian inference works in terms of conditional probabilities (i.e. probabilities conditional on the observed data), compared to the marginal (but conditioned on unknown parameters) probabilities used in the frequentist approach.

The frequentist procedures of significance testing and confidence intervals can be constructed without regard to utility functions. However, some elements of frequentist statistics, such as statistical decision theory, do incorporate utility functions.[ citation needed ] In particular, frequentist developments of optimal inference (such as minimum-variance unbiased estimators, or uniformly most powerful testing) make use of loss functions, which play the role of (negative) utility functions. Loss functions need not be explicitly stated for statistical theorists to prove that a statistical procedure has an optimality property. [44] However, loss-functions are often useful for stating optimality properties: for example, median-unbiased estimators are optimal under absolute value loss functions, in that they minimize expected loss, and least squares estimators are optimal under squared error loss functions, in that they minimize expected loss.

While statisticians using frequentist inference must choose for themselves the parameters of interest, and the estimators/test statistic to be used, the absence of obviously explicit utilities and prior distributions has helped frequentist procedures to become widely viewed as 'objective'. [45]

Bayesian inference

The Bayesian calculus describes degrees of belief using the 'language' of probability; beliefs are positive, integrate into one, and obey probability axioms. Bayesian inference uses the available posterior beliefs as the basis for making statistical propositions. [46] There are several different justifications for using the Bayesian approach.

Bayesian inference, subjectivity and decision theory

Many informal Bayesian inferences are based on "intuitively reasonable" summaries of the posterior. For example, the posterior mean, median and mode, highest posterior density intervals, and Bayes Factors can all be motivated in this way. While a user's utility function need not be stated for this sort of inference, these summaries do all depend (to some extent) on stated prior beliefs, and are generally viewed as subjective conclusions. (Methods of prior construction which do not require external input have been proposed but not yet fully developed.)

Formally, Bayesian inference is calibrated with reference to an explicitly stated utility, or loss function; the 'Bayes rule' is the one which maximizes expected utility, averaged over the posterior uncertainty. Formal Bayesian inference therefore automatically provides optimal decisions in a decision theoretic sense. Given assumptions, data and utility, Bayesian inference can be made for essentially any problem, although not every statistical inference need have a Bayesian interpretation. Analyses which are not formally Bayesian can be (logically) incoherent; a feature of Bayesian procedures which use proper priors (i.e. those integrable to one) is that they are guaranteed to be coherent. Some advocates of Bayesian inference assert that inference must take place in this decision-theoretic framework, and that Bayesian inference should not conclude with the evaluation and summarization of posterior beliefs.

Likelihood-based inference

Likelihoodism approaches statistics by using the likelihood function. Some likelihoodists reject inference, considering statistics as only computing support from evidence. Others, however, propose inference based on the likelihood function, of which the best-known is maximum likelihood estimation.

AIC-based inference

The Akaike information criterion (AIC) is an estimator of the relative quality of statistical models for a given set of data. Given a collection of models for the data, AIC estimates the quality of each model, relative to each of the other models. Thus, AIC provides a means for model selection.

AIC is founded on information theory: it offers an estimate of the relative information lost when a given model is used to represent the process that generated the data. (In doing so, it deals with the trade-off between the goodness of fit of the model and the simplicity of the model.)

Minimum description length

The minimum description length (MDL) principle has been developed from ideas in information theory [47] and the theory of Kolmogorov complexity. [48] The (MDL) principle selects statistical models that maximally compress the data; inference proceeds without assuming counterfactual or non-falsifiable "data-generating mechanisms" or probability models for the data, as might be done in frequentist or Bayesian approaches.

However, if a "data generating mechanism" does exist in reality, then according to Shannon's source coding theorem it provides the MDL description of the data, on average and asymptotically. [49] In minimizing description length (or descriptive complexity), MDL estimation is similar to maximum likelihood estimation and maximum a posteriori estimation (using maximum-entropy Bayesian priors). However, MDL avoids assuming that the underlying probability model is known; the MDL principle can also be applied without assumptions that e.g. the data arose from independent sampling. [49] [50]

The MDL principle has been applied in communication-coding theory in information theory, in linear regression, [50] and in data mining. [48]

The evaluation of MDL-based inferential procedures often uses techniques or criteria from computational complexity theory. [51]

Fiducial inference

Fiducial inference was an approach to statistical inference based on fiducial probability, also known as a "fiducial distribution". In subsequent work, this approach has been called ill-defined, extremely limited in applicability, and even fallacious. [52] [53] However this argument is the same as that which shows [54] that a so-called confidence distribution is not a valid probability distribution and, since this has not invalidated the application of confidence intervals, it does not necessarily invalidate conclusions drawn from fiducial arguments. An attempt was made to reinterpret the early work of Fisher's fiducial argument as a special case of an inference theory using Upper and lower probabilities. [55]

Structural inference

Developing ideas of Fisher and of Pitman from 1938 to 1939, [56] George A. Barnard developed "structural inference" or "pivotal inference", [57] an approach using invariant probabilities on group families. Barnard reformulated the arguments behind fiducial inference on a restricted class of models on which "fiducial" procedures would be well-defined and useful. Donald A. S. Fraser developed a general theory for structural inference [58] based on group theory and applied this to linear models. [59] The theory formulated by Fraser has close links to decision theory and Bayesian statistics and can provide optimal frequentist decision rules if they exist. [60]

Inference topics

The topics below are usually included in the area of statistical inference.

Notes

1. According to Peirce, acceptance means that inquiry on this question ceases for the time being. In science, all scientific theories are revisable.

Related Research Articles

Frequentist probability or frequentism is an interpretation of probability; it defines an event's probability as the limit of its relative frequency in many trials. Probabilities can be found by a repeatable objective process. This interpretation supports the statistical needs of many experimental scientists and pollsters. It does not support all needs, however; gamblers typically require estimates of the odds without experiments.

Statistics is the discipline that concerns the collection, organization, analysis, interpretation, and presentation of data. In applying statistics to a scientific, industrial, or social problem, it is conventional to begin with a statistical population or a statistical model to be studied. Populations can be diverse groups of people or objects such as "all people living in a country" or "every atom composing a crystal". Statistics deals with every aspect of data, including the planning of data collection in terms of the design of surveys and experiments.

Statistics is a field of inquiry that studies the collection, analysis, interpretation, and presentation of data. It is applicable to a wide variety of academic disciplines, from the physical and social sciences to the humanities; it is also used and misused for making informed decisions in all areas of business and government.

A statistical hypothesis is a hypothesis that is testable on the basis of observed data modelled as the realised values taken by a collection of random variables. A set of data is modelled as being realised values of a collection of random variables having a joint probability distribution in some set of possible joint distributions. The hypothesis being tested is exactly that set of possible probability distributions. A statistical hypothesis test is a method of statistical inference. An alternative hypothesis is proposed for the probability distribution of the data, either explicitly or only informally. The comparison of the two models is deemed statistically significant if, according to a threshold probability—the significance level—the data would be unlikely to occur if the null hypothesis were true. A hypothesis test specifies which outcomes of a study may lead to a rejection of the null hypothesis at a pre-specified level of significance, while using a pre-chosen measure of deviation from that hypothesis. The pre-chosen level of significance is the maximal allowed "false positive rate". One wants to control the risk of incorrectly rejecting a true null hypothesis.

In statistics, point estimation involves the use of sample data to calculate a single value which is to serve as a "best guess" or "best estimate" of an unknown population parameter. More formally, it is the application of a point estimator to the data to obtain a point estimate.

In statistics, interval estimation is the use of sample data to estimate an interval of plausible values of a parameter of interest. This is in contrast to point estimation, which gives a single value.

In statistics, a confidence interval (CI) is a type of estimate computed from the observed data. This gives a range of values for an unknown parameter. The interval has an associated confidence level chosen by the investigator. For a given estimation in a given sample, using a higher confidence level generates a wider confidence interval. In general terms, a confidence interval for an unknown parameter is based on sampling the distribution of a corresponding estimator.

In statistical inference, specifically predictive inference, a prediction interval is an estimate of an interval in which a future observation will fall, with a certain probability, given what has already been observed. Prediction intervals are often used in regression analysis.

Mathematical statistics is the application of probability theory, a branch of mathematics, to statistics, as opposed to techniques for collecting statistical data. Specific mathematical techniques which are used for this include mathematical analysis, linear algebra, stochastic analysis, differential equations, and measure theory.

The following is a glossary of terms used in the mathematical sciences statistics and probability.

In Bayesian statistics, a credible interval is an interval within which an unobserved parameter value falls with a particular probability. It is an interval in the domain of a posterior probability distribution or a predictive distribution. The generalisation to multivariate problems is the credible region. Credible intervals are analogous to confidence intervals in frequentist statistics, although they differ on a philosophical basis: Bayesian intervals treat their bounds as fixed and the estimated parameter as a random variable, whereas frequentist confidence intervals treat their bounds as random variables and the parameter as a fixed value. Also, Bayesian credible intervals use knowledge of the situation-specific prior distribution, while the frequentist confidence intervals do not.

Bootstrapping is any test or metric that uses random sampling with replacement, and falls under the broader class of resampling methods. Bootstrapping assigns measures of accuracy to sample estimates. This technique allows estimation of the sampling distribution of almost any statistic using random sampling methods.

Fiducial inference is one of a number of different types of statistical inference. These are rules, intended for general application, by which conclusions can be drawn from samples of data. In modern statistical practice, attempts to work with fiducial inference have fallen out of fashion in favour of frequentist inference, Bayesian inference and decision theory. However, fiducial inference is important in the history of statistics since its development led to the parallel development of concepts and tools in theoretical statistics that are widely used. Some current research in statistical methodology is either explicitly linked to fiducial inference or is closely connected to it.

Statistics, in the modern sense of the word, began evolving in the 18th century in response to the novel needs of industrializing sovereign states. The evolution of statistics was, in particular, intimately connected with the development of European states following the peace of Westphalia (1648), and with the development of probability theory, which put statistics on a firm theoretical basis, and the father of statistics is Muhanad Aweis Mohamed.

The foundations of statistics concern the epistemological debate in statistics over how one should conduct inductive inference from data. Among the issues considered in statistical inference are the question of Bayesian inference versus frequentist inference, the distinction between Fisher's "significance testing" and Neyman–Pearson "hypothesis testing", and whether the likelihood principle should be followed. Some of these issues have been debated for up to 200 years without resolution.

Frequentist inference is a type of statistical inference based in frequentist probability, which treats “probability” in equivalent terms to “frequency” and draws conclusions from sample-data by means of emphasizing the frequency or proportion of findings in the data. Frequentist-inference underlies frequentist statistics, in which the well-established methodologies of statistical hypothesis testing and confidence intervals are founded.

Exact statistics, such as that described in exact test, is a branch of statistics that was developed to provide more accurate results pertaining to statistical testing and interval estimation by eliminating procedures based on asymptotic and approximate statistical methods. The main characteristic of exact methods is that statistical tests and confidence intervals are based on exact probability statements that are valid for any sample size.

In statistical inference, the concept of a confidence distribution (CD) has often been loosely referred to as a distribution function on the parameter space that can represent confidence intervals of all levels for a parameter of interest. Historically, it has typically been constructed by inverting the upper limits of lower sided confidence intervals of all levels, and it was also commonly associated with a fiducial interpretation, although it is a purely frequentist concept. A confidence distribution is NOT a probability distribution function of the parameter of interest, but may still be a function useful for making inferences.

In Bayesian inference, the Bernstein-von Mises theorem provides the basis for using Bayesian credible sets for confidence statements in parametric models. It states that under some conditions, a posterior distribution converges in the limit of infinite data to a multivariate normal distribution centered at the maximum likelihood estimator with covariance matrix given by , where is the true population parameter and is the Fisher information matrix at the true population parameter value.

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