A probabilistic justification to carpe diem

There’s a curious thing about unlikely independent events: no matter how rare, they’re most likely to happen right away.

Let’s get hypothetical

You’ve taken a bet that pays off if you guess the exact date of the next occurrence of a rare event (p = 0.0001 on any given day i.i.d). What day do you choose? In other words, what is the most likely day for this rare event to occur?

Setting aside for now why in the world you’ve taken such a silly sounding bet, it would seem as though a reasonable way to think about it would be to ask: what is the expected number of days until the event? That must be the best bet, right?

We can work out the expected number of days quite easily as 1/p = 10000. So using the logic of expectation, we would choose day 10000 as our bet.

Let’s simulate to see how often we would win with this strategy. We’ll simulate the outcomes by flipping a weighted coin until it comes out heads. We’ll do this 100,000 times and record how many flips it took each time.

p0001

The event occurred on day 10,000 exactly 35 times. However, if we look at a histogram of our simulation experiment, we can see that the time it took for the rare event to happen was more often short, than long. In fact, the event occurred 103 times on the very first flip (the most common Time to Event in our set)!

So from the experiment it would seem that the most likely amount of time to pass until the rare event occurs is 0. Maybe our hypothetical event was just not rare enough. Let’s try it again with p=0.0000001, or an event with a 1 in 1million chance of occurring each day.

p0000001

While now our event is extremely unlikely to occur, it’s still most likely to occur right away.

Existential Risk

What does this all have to do with seizing the day? Everything we do in a given day comes with some degree of risk. The Stanford professor Ronald A. Howard conceived of a way of measuring the riskiness of various day-to-day activities, which he termed the micromort. One micromort is a unit of risk equal to p = 0.000001 (1 in a million chance) of death. We are all subject to a baseline level of risk in micromorts, and additional activities may add or subtract from that level (skiing, for instance adds 0.7 micromorts per day).

While minimizing the risks we assume in our day-to-day lives can increase our expected life span, the most likely exact day of our demise is always our next one. So carpe diem!!

Post Script:

Don’t get too freaked out by all of this. It’s just a bit of fun that comes from viewing the problem in a very specific way. That is, as a question of which exact day is most likely. The much more natural way to view it is to ask, what is the relative probability of the unlikely event occurring tomorrow vs any other day but tomorrow. I leave it to the reader to confirm that for events with p < 0.5, the latter is always more likely.

Simudidactic

auto·di·dact n.
A self-taught person.
From Greek autodidaktosself-taught : auto-auto- + didaktostaught;

+

sim·u·late v.
To create a representation or model of (a physical system or particular situation, for example).
From Latin simulre, simult-, from similislike;

=
(If you can get past the mixing of Latin and Greek roots)

sim·u·di·dactic adj.
To learn by creating a representation or model of a physical system or particular situation. Particularly, using in silico computation to understand complex systems and phenomena.

———————————————————————

This concept has been floating around in my head for a little while. I’ve written before on how I believe that simulation can be used to improve one’s understanding of just about anything, but have never had a nice shorthand for this process.

Simudidactic inquiry is the process of understanding aspects of the world by abstracting them into a computational model, then conducting experiments in this model world by changing the underlying properties and parameters. In this way, one can ask questions like:

  1. What type of observations might we make if x were true?
  2. If my model of the process is accurate, can I recapture the underlying parameters given the type of observations I can make in the real world? How often will I be wrong?
  3. Will I be able to distinguish between competing models given the observations I can make in the real world?

In addition to being able to ask these types of questions, the simudidact solidifies their understanding of the model by actually building it.

So go on, get simudidactic and learn via simulation!

simudidactic

What is probabilistic truth? Part 2 – Everything is conditional

Read Part 1

When making a statement of the form “1/2 is the correct probability that this coin will land tails”, there are a few things which are left unsaid, but which are typically implied.

The statement is one about the probability of an unknown event occurring, and it would seem reasonable to write this statement using probability notation as P(toss=tails) = 0.5. And indeed many people would express it this way. However, what is missing is the state of knowledge under which this statement has been made. For instance, is the coin yet to be flipped, or is it currently rolling in a circle on the table, leaning in toward its final resting position? Perhaps the flipping device can consistently throw a coin such that it rotates exactly 5 times in the air before landing flat on the table, or we know which side is up at the start of the flip. In these latter cases, the statement of probability would be made under considerably more knowledge than the first, and would not tend to be 0.5 in these cases. An observer placing a probability of P(toss=tails) = 0.99 at the moment when the coin is circling in on its resting position, leaning heavily toward a tails up configuration, could be said to have the correct probability also. For fairness, lets say that the first observer also makes her probability statement at the same moment, but from another room where she cannot see what has happened.

How can P(toss=tails) = 0.5, and P(toss=tails) = 0.99 be simultaneously correct?

The answer is conditioning. Each of the statements were made conditional on the observer’s state of knowledge. More completely, the two statements can be rewritten as:

P(toss=tails | knowledge of observer 1) = 0.5 , and

P(toss=tails | knowledge of observer 2) = 0.99

In practice, however, we often leave out the conditional part of the notation unless it is germane to the problem at hand. However, there is no such thing as unconditional probability. In fact, Harvard professor Joe Blitzstein calls conditioning the Soul of Statistics.

In the next post in this series, we’ll start looking at how to assess the correctness of a (conditional) probability statement after having observed an outcome.

Here's a bunch of random walks -- just 'cause its neat.

Here’s a bunch of random walks — just ’cause its neat.

Simulation and Likelihood Methods Workshop in Kananaskis

I can think of worse places to get down and dirty with R than Kananaskis, Alberta.

Zero to R Hero

CAISN_Primary_trans

Canadian Aquatic Invasive Species Networks Annual General Meeting in Kananaskis, Alberta. May 03, 3:25-5:30.

This 2-hour workshop will focus on how and why we do numerical simulation in R. Time permitting, we will also look at how to build and fit likelihood based statistical models.

We ask that you bring your laptop with both R and R-Studio installed. If you’ve never worked with R before, please have a look at the getting started with R document. You can
also check out the slides from our more introductory workshops.

Outline

Section 1: Introduction to Simulation (script)

  •     What is (numerical) simulation?
  •     Drawing random samples from a set
  •     Drawing random samples from a probability distribution
  •     Describing models in terms of their deterministic and stochastic parts
  •     Simulating data from a model

Section 2: Likelihood Methods(script)

  •     The Likelihood Principle
  •     The Ecologist’s Quarter
  •     Maximum…

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Mathematical abstraction and the robustness to assumptions

I’ve been showing my new favourite toys to just about anyone foolish enough to actually engage me in conversation. I described how my shiny new set of non-transitive dice work here, complete with a map showing all the relevant probabilities.

All was neat and tidy and wonderful until fellow ecologist, Aaron Ball, tried to burst my bubble.

Nope. I couldn’t find the error. Fortunately, he works across the hall so I just went and asked him.

The problem he found, it turns out, was not with my calculations but with my assumptions. Aaron told me that dice constructed with rounded corners and hollowed out pips for the numbers on the faces tend to be biased in the frequency at which each face rolls up. I had assumed, of course, that each side of each of the five dice would roll with the same probability (ie. 1 in 6).

As with any model of a real world system, the mathematics were carried out on a simplified abstraction of the system being modelled. There are always, by necessity, assumptions being made. The important thing is to make these assumptions as explicit as possible and, where possible, to test the robustness of the model predictions to violations of the assumptions. Implicit to my calculations of the odds of the non-transitive Grime dice was the assumption that the dice are fair.

To check the model for robustness to this assumption, we can relax it and find out if we still get the same behaviour. Specifically, we can ask here whether some sort of pip-and-rounded-corner-induced bias can lead to a change in the Grime dice non-transitive cycles.

It seems a natural place to look would be between the dice pairings which have the closest to even odds. We can find out what level of bias would be required to switch the directionality of the odds (or at least erase the tendency for one die to roll higher than the other). Lets try looking at Magenta and Red, which under the fair dice assumption have odds p(Magenta > Red)=5/9. What kind of bias will change this relationship? The odds can be evened out by either Magenta rolling ones more often, or red rolling nine more often. The question is then, how much bias would there need to in the dice in order to even out the odds between Magenta and Red?

Lets start with Red biasing toward rolling nine more often (recall that nine appears on only one face). Under the fair dice hypothesis, Red can roll nine (1/6 of the time) and win no matter what Magenta rolls, or by rolling four (5/6 of the time) and win when Magenta rolls one (1/3 of the time).

P(Red > Magenta) = 1/6 + 5/6 * 1/3, which is 4/9.

If we set this probability equal to 1/2, and replace the fraction of times that Red rolls nine with x, we can solve for the frequency needed to even the odds.

x + 5/6 * 1/3 = 1/2

x = 2/9

Meaning that the Red die would have to be biased toward rolling nine with 2/9 odds. That’s equivalent to rolling a nine 1 and 1/3 times (33%) more often than you would expect if the die were fair!

Alternatively, the other way the odds between Red and Magenta could be evened is if Magenta biased towards rolling ones more often. We can do the same kind of calculation as above to figure out how much bias would be needed.

1/6 + 5/6 * x = 1/2

x = 2/5

Which corresponds to Magenta having  a 20% bias toward rolling ones. Of course, some combination of these biases could also be possible.

I leave it to the reader to work out the other pairings, but from the Red-Magenta analysis we can see that even if the dice deviated quite a bit from the expected 1/6 probability for each side, the edge afforded to Magenta is retained. I couldn’t find any convincing  evidence for the extent of bias caused by pipping and rounded corners but it seems unlikely that it would be strong enough to change the structure of the game.

Introduction to Simulation using R

We had a great turnout yesterday for our Zero to R Hero workshop at the Quebec Centre for Biodiversity Science. We went from the absolute basics of the command line, to the intricacies of importing data, and finally we had a look at plotting using ggplot2. We didn’t have time to get to this extra module introducing simulation, but if you want to work through it on your own you can find the slides here:

intro_sim

The script file to follow along with is here:

https://gist.github.com/cjbayesian/5220711

Who is uncomfortable with uncertainty?

In The Economists’ World in 2013 edition, I came across a very interesting statement about forecast uncertainty, and just who are the ones doing all the squirming about it.

…recent reforms to the IPCC’s procedures will do little to change its tendency to focus on the areas where there is greater consensus, avoiding the uncertainties which, though unpalatable for scientists, are important to policy. (link)

What struck me about this claim is that it runs completely counter to what I’ve been told during my training as a scientist. It is the scientist, it goes, that possesses a deep understanding of uncertainty. The policy maker, on the other hand, is an oaf who wishes to hear only of black and white pronouncements about the effect of x on y. Could it be that this perception is inverted in each camp?

Certainly the scientist and policy maker each wish to decrease uncertainty. However, it ought to be that neither finds it ‘unpalatable’ in and of itself, but rather an inextricable part of our predictions about complex systems (or even the simplest ones, for that matter). Acknowledgement, understanding, and quantification of uncertainty are absolutely crucial to conducting good science as well as informing science directed policy.