The new science of simplicity

Forster, Malcolm R.Arnold Zellner, Hugo Keuzenkamp, and Michael McAleer: Journal of Scientific Exploration, vol. 21, n 1, pp. 135-140, 2007, 2001
n1My thanks go to the participants of the conference for a stimulating exchange of ideas, and to Martin Barrett, Branden Fitelson, Mike Kruse, Elliott Sober and Grace Wahba for helpful discussions on material that appeared in previous versions of this paper. I am also grateful to the Vilas Foundation, the Graduate School, and sabbatical support from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The problem

No matter how often billiard balls have moved when struck in the past, the next billiard ball may not move when struck. For philosophers, this theoretical possibility of being wrong raises a problem about how to justify our theories and models of the world and their predictions. This is the problem of induction. In practice, nobody denies that the next billiard ball will move when struck, so many scientists see no practical problem. But in recent times, scientists have been presented with competing methods for comparing hypotheses or models (classical hypothesis testing, BIC, AIC, cross validation, and so on) which do not yield the same predictions. Here there is a problem.

Model selection involves a tradeoff between simplicity and fit for reasons that are now fairly well understood (see Forster and Sober, 1994, for an elementary exposition). However, there are many ways of making this tradeoff, and this chapter will analyze the conditions under which one method will perform better than another. The main conclusions of the analysis are that (1) there is no method that is better than all the others under all conditions, even when some reasonable background assumptions are made, and (2) for any methods A and B, there are circumstances in which A is better than B, and there are other circumstance in which B will do better than A. Every method is fraught with some risk even in well-behaved situations in which nature is uniform. Scientists will do well to understand the risks.

It is easy to be persuaded by the wrong reasons. If there is always a situation in which method A performs worse than method B, then there is a computer simulation that will display this weakness. But if the analysis of this article is correct, then there is always a situation in which any method A will do worse. To be swayed by a single simulation to put all your money on the assumption that the examples of interest to you are the same in all relevant respects. One needs to understand what is relevant and what is not.

Another spurious argument is the (frequently cited) claim that AIC is inconsistent?that AIC does not converge in the limit of large samples to what it is trying to estimate. That depends on what AIC is trying to estimate. Akaike (1973) designed AIC to estimate the expected loglikelihood, or equivalently, Kullback-Leibler discrepancy, or predictive accuracy (Forster and Sober, 1994). In section 7, I show that AIC is consistent in estimating this quantity. Whether it is the most efficient method is a separate question. I suspect that no method has a universally valid claim to that title. The bottom line is that the comparison of methods has no easy solution, and one should not be swayed by hasty conclusions.

The way to avoid hasty conclusions is to analyze the problem in three steps:

  1. The specification of a goal. What goal can be reached or achieved?
  2. The specification of a means to the goal. What is the criterion, or method?
  3. An explanation of how a criterion works in achieving the goal.

This chapter is an exercise in applying this three-step methodology to the problem of model selection.

The chapter is organized as follows. Section 2 introduces scientific inference and its goals, while section 3 argues that standard model selection procedures lack a clear foundation in even the easiest of examples. This motivates the need for a deeper analysis, and section 4 describes a framework in which the goal of predictive accuracy is precisely defined. The definition of predictive accuracy is completely general and assumption free, in contrast to section 5 which develops the framework using a
normality assumption about the distribution of parameter estimates n2 Normality refers to the bell-shaped normal distribution, which plays a central role in statistics. Physicists, and others, refer to the same distribution as Gaussian, after Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777 - 1855), who used it to derive the method of least squares from the principle of maximum likelihood. Even though the assumption is not universal, it is surprisingly general and far-reaching. No statistician will deny that this is a very important case, and it serves as concrete illustration of how a science of simplicity should be developed. Section 6 compares the performance of various methods for optimizing the goal of predictive accuracy when the normality assumption holds approximately, and explains the limitations in each method. The clear and precise definition of the goal is enough to defend AIC against the very common, but spurious, charge that it is inconsistent.

I discuss this in section 7. Section 8 summarizes the main conclusions.


A model is a set of equations, or functions, with one or more adjustable parameters. For example, suppose LIN is the family of linear functions of a dependent variable y on a single independent variable x, {y = a0 + a1x + u | a0  ?, a1  ?}, where ? is the set of real numbers and u is an error term that has a specified probability distribution. The error distribution may be characterized by adjustable parameters of its own, such as a variance, although it is always assumed to have zero mean. Note that there can be more than one dependent variable, and they can each depend on several independent variables, which may depend on each other (as in causal modelling). The family LIN is characterized by two adjustable parameters, while PAR is a family of parabolic functions {y = a0 + a1x + a2 x2 + u | a0  ?, a1  ?, a2  ?}, characterized by at least three adjustable parameters.

The distinction between variables and adjustable parameters is sometimes confusing since the adjustable parameters are variables in a sense. The difference is that x and y vary within the context of each member of the family, while the parameters only vary from one member to the next. The empirical data specify pairs of (x, y) values, which do not include parameter values. Parameters are introduced theoretically for the purpose of distinguishing competing hypotheses within each model.

A typical inferential problem is that of deciding, given a set of seen data (a set of number pairs, where the first number is a measured x-value, and the second number is a measured y-value), whether to use LIN or PAR is better for the purpose of predicting new data (a set of unseen (x, y) pairs). Since LIN and PAR are competing models, the problem is a problem of model selection. After the model is selected, then standard statistical methods are used to estimate the parameter values to yield a single functional relation between x and y, which can be used to predict y-values for novel x-values. The second step is fairly well understood. Model selection is the more intriguing part of the process although model selection is usually based on the properties of the estimated parameter values.

The philosophical problem is to understand exactly how scientists should compare models. Neither the problem, nor its proposed solutions, are limited to curve-fitting problems. That is why econometricians or physicists, or anyone interested in prediction, should be interested in how to trade off fit with simplicity, or its close cousin, unification. For example, we may compare the solutions of Newtons equations with the solutions of Einsteins mechanics applied to the same physical system or set of systems. Here we would be comparing one huge nexus of interconnected models with another huge nexus where the interconnections amongst the parts follow a different pattern. Einsteins solution of the problem of explaining the slow precession of the planet Mercurys orbit around the sun depends on the speed of light, which connects that precession phe-nomenon to quite disparate electromagnetic phenomena. There is wide consensus that Einsteinian physics would come out on top because it fits the data at least as well as the Newtonian equations, and sometimes better, without fudging the result by introducing new parameters (the speed of light was already in use, though not in explaining planetary motions). It seems that the overall number of parameters is relevant here. These vague intuitions have swayed physicists for millennia. But physicists have not formalized them, nor explained them, nor understood them, even in very simple cases.

Recent research in statistics has lead to a number numerically precise criteria for model selection. There is classical Neyman-Pearson hypothesis testing, the Bayesian BIC criterion (Schwarz 1978), the minimization of description length (MDL) criterion (Rissanen 1978, 1987; Wallace and Freeman 1987), Akaikes information criterion (AIC) (Akaike 1973, 1974, 1977, 1985; see also Sakamoto et al 1986, and
Forster and Sober 1994) , and various methods of cross validation (e.g., Turney 1994, Xiang and Wahba 1996). In a few short years we have gone from informal intuition to an embarrassment of riches. The problem is to find some way of critically evaluating competing methods of scientific inference. I call this the new science of simplicity because I believe that this problem should be treated as a scientific problem: to understand when and why model selection criteria succeed or fail, we should model the process of model selection itself. There is no simple and no universal model of model selection, for the success of a selection method depends greatly on the circumstances, and to understand the complexities, we have to model the situation in which the model selection takes place. For philosophers of science, this is like making assumptions about the uniformity of nature in order understand how induction works. The problem is the same: How can we make assumptions that dont simply assume what we want to prove? For example, it would not be enlighten-ing to try to understand why inductive methods favor Einsteins physics over Newtons if we have to assume that Einsteins theory is true in order to model the inferential process. Fortunately, the new work on simplicity makes use of weaker assumptions. An example of such an assumption is the normality assumption. It simply places constraints on how the estimated values of parameters are distributed around their true values without placing any constraints on the true values themselves.

This is why it is so important not to confuse what I am calling the normality assumption, which is about the distribution of repeated parameter estimates, with an assumption about the normality of error distributions. For example, in the case of a binary event like coin tossing, in which a random variable3 takes on the values 0 and 1, there is no sense in which the deviation of this random variable from the mean is normal. The error distribution is discrete, whereas the normal distribution is continuous. However, the distribution of the sample mean, which estimates the propensity of the coin to land heads, is approximately normal. A normality assumption about errors is stronger and more restrictive than an assumption of normality for the repeated parameter estimates. It is the less restrictive assumption that is used in what follows.4

It is true that models of model selection are a little different from standard scientific models. Scientific models are descriptive, while models of model selection are what I will call weakly normative.5 For example, models of planetary motion describe or purport to describe planets. But models of model selection relate a model selection criterion to a goal. The goal might be predictive accuracy, empirical adequacy, truth, probable truth, or approximate truth. But whatever the goal, the project is to understand the relationship between the methods of scientific inference and the goal. Of this list, predictive accuracy is the one epistemic goal (minimizing description length is a non-epistemic
goal) whose relationship with simplicity is reasonably well understood thanks to recent work in mathematical statistics. So, predictive accuracy is the goal considered in this paper.

Bayesianism is the dominant approach to scientific inference in North America today, but what does it take as the goal of inference? Fundamentally, Bayesianism is a theory of decision making, and can consider any goal. It then defines the method of deciding between two competing models as the maximization of the expected payoff with
3 A random variable is a variable whose possible values are assigned a probability.
4 Kiessep (1997) shows that a normality assumption for the error distribution is not
always sufficient to ensure normality of the parameter estimators. However, Cramr
(1946), especially chapters 32 and 33, explains how the conditions are met
asymptotically for large sample sizes in a very general class of cases.
5 A strongly normative statement is one which says we should or we ought to do such
and such. A weakly normative statement is one that says we should do such and such
in order to optimize a given goal, without implying that it is a goal we should
88 Malcolm R. Forster
respect to that goal. The simplest idea is that the payoff of scientific
theories lies in their truth. With that in mind, it is simplest to assign a
payoff of 1 to a true model and 0 to a false model. Let me refer to this
kind of Bayesian philosophy of science as classical Bayesianism, or
standard Bayesianism.6 Consider a choice between model A and model
B. Is the expected payoff in selecting A greater than the expected payoff
in selecting B? The answer is given in terms of their probabilities. If
Pr(A) is the probability that A is true, and Pr(B) be the probability that B
is true, then the expected payoff for A is, by definition, Pr(A) times the
payoff if its true plus the Pr(not-A) times the payoff if its false. The
second term disappears, so the expected payoff for believing A is Pr(A).
Likewise, the expected payoff for believing B is Pr(B). The expected
payoff for believing A is greater than the expected payoff for believing B
if and only if Pr(A) is greater than Pr(B). This leads to the principle that
we should choose the theory that has the greatest probability, which is
exactly the idea behind the model selection criterion derived by Schwarz
(1978), called BIC.
Whatever the goal, a scientific approach to model selection is
usefully divided into 3 parts:
1. The specification of a goal. What goal can be reached or achieved in
model selection? Approximate truth is too vague. Probable truth is
also too vague unless you tell me what the probability is of. Truth is
too vague for the same reason. Are we aiming for the truth of a
theory, a model, or a more precise hypothesis?
2. The specification of a criterion, or a means to the goal. This is where
simplicity will enter the picture. What kind of simplicity is involved
and exactly how it is to be used in combination with other kinds of
information, like fit?
3. An explanation of how the criterion works in achieving the goal. For
example, Bayesians explain the criterion by deducing it from specific
assumptions about prior probability distributions. The Akaike explanation
makes no such assumptions about prior probabilities, but
instead, makes assumptions about the probabilistic behavior of parameter
estimates. The style of the explanation is different in each case,
and is a further ingredient in what I am calling the framework.
6 The classical Bayesian approach is currently dominant in the philosophy of science.
See Earman (1992) for a survey of this tradition, and Forster (1995) for a critical
overview. For alternative Akaike solutions to standard problems in the philosophy
of science, see Forster and Sober (1994). For an Akaike treatment of the ravens
paradox, see Forster (1994). For an Akaike solution to the problem of variety of
evidence, see Kruse (1997).
The new science of simplicity 89
It should be clear from this brief summary that the difference between the
Bayesian and Akaike modeling of model selection marks a profound
difference between statistical frameworks. What I have to say about the
modeling of model selection goes to the very heart of statistical practice
and its foundations. Anyone interested in induction agrees that, in some
sense, truth is the ultimate goal of inference, but they disagree about how
to measure partial success in achieving that goal. Classical Bayesians do
not tackle the problem of defining partial success. They talk of the
probability that a hypothesis is true, but most Bayesians deny that such
probabilities are objective, in which case they do not define partial
success in an objective way. There is no sense in which one Bayesian
scientist is closer to the truth than another if neither actually reaches the
true model.
The same criticism applies to decision-theoretic Bayesians as well.
These are Bayesians who treat model selection as a decision problem,
whose aim is to maximize a goal, or utility (Young, 1987), or minimize a
loss or discrepancy (Linhart and Zucchini, 1986). They are free to
specify any goal whatsoever, and so they are free to consider predictive
accuracy as a goal. But, again, the expectation is a subjective expectation
defined in terms of a subjective probability distribution. Typically, these
Bayesians do not evaluate the success of their method with respect to the
degree of predictive accuracy actually achieved. They could, but then
they would be evaluating their method within the Akaike framework.
Nor do Bayesians consider the objective relationship between the
method (the maximization of subjectively expected utilities) and the goal
(the utilities). That is, they do not consider step (3), above. At present, it
appears to be an article of faith that there is nothing better than the
Bayesian method, and they provide no explanation of this fact (if it is a
fact). And even if they did, I fear that it would depend on a subjective
measure of partial success. That is why the Akaike approach is
fundamental to the problem of comparing methods of model selection.
The Akaike framework defines the success of inference by how close
the selected hypothesis is to the true hypothesis, where the closeness is
measured by the Kullback-Leibler distance (Kullback and Leibler 1951).
This distance can also be conceptualized as a measure of the accuracy of
predictions in a certain domain. It is an objective measure of partial
success, and like truth, we do not know its value. That is why predictive
accuracy plays the role of a goal of inference, and not a means or method
of inference. The issue of how well any method achieves the goal is
itself a matter of scientific investigation. We need to develop models of
model selection.
The vagueness of the notion of simplicity has always been a major
worry for philosophers. Interestingly, all three methods already men90
Malcolm R. Forster
tioned, the MDL criterion, BIC, and AIC, define simplicity in exactly the
same way?as the paucity of adjustable parameters, or more exactly, the
dimension of a family of functions (when the two differ, then it is the
dimension that is meant, for it does not depend on how the family is
described; see Forster, 1999). So, the definition of simplicity is not a
source of major disagreement.
In fact, I am surprised that there is any disagreement amongst these
schools of thought at all! After all, each criterion was designed to pursue
an entirely different goal, so each criterion might be the best one for
achieving its goal. The MDL criterion may be the best for minimizing
description length, the BIC criterion the best for maximizing probability,
and the AIC criterion the best at maximizing predictive accuracy. The
point is that the claims are logically independent. The truth of one does
not entail the falsity of the others. There is no reason why scientists
should not value all three goals and pursue each one of them separately,
for none of the goals are wrong-headed.
Nevertheless, researchers do tend to think that the approaches are
competing solutions to the same problem. Perhaps it is because they
think that it is impossible to achieve one goal without achieving the
others? Hence, there is only one problem of induction and they talk of
the problem of scientific inference. If there is only one problem, then the
Akaike formulation is a precise formulation of the problem, for it
provides a definition of partial success with respect to the ultimate goal
of truth. For that reason, I will compare all model selection criteria
within the Akaike framework.
3 A milieu of methods and an easy example
Here is a very simple example of a statistics problem. Suppose that a die
has a probability *of an odd number of dots landing up, which does not
change over time, and each toss is independent of every other toss. This
fact is not known. The two competing models are M1 and M2. Both
models get everything right except that they disagree on the probability
of an odd number of dots landing up, denoted by .
M1 asserts that = . This model specifies an exact probability for
all events. If M1 is a family of hypotheses, then there is only one
hypothesis in the family. M1 has no adjustable parameters. This is a
common source of confusion, since it does mention a parameter;
namely . But is given a value, and is therefore adjusted, and not
adjustable. M2, on the other hand, is uncommitted about the value of .
is now an adjustable parameter, so M2 is more complex than M1 in one
sense of complex. Also note that M1 is nested in M2, since all the
hypotheses in M1 also appear in
The new science of simplicity 91
M2. The problem is to use the observed data to estimate the probability
of future events. There is no precise prediction involved, but we think of
it as a prediction problem of a more general kind. The problem of
induction applies to this kind of problem.
In classical statistics, there are two steps in the solution of this problem.
The first step is to test M1 against M2. This is the process that I am
calling model selection. The second step is to estimate the value of any
adjustable parameters in the winning model by choosing the best fitting
hypothesis in the family that best fits the seen data. This picks out a
single hypothesis which can be used for the prediction or explanation of
unseen data. While different statistical paradigms have different
definitions of best fit, those differences usually make little difference,
and I will ignore them here. I will assume that everyone measures fit by
the likelihood (or log-likelihood). The nave empirical method that
ignores simplicity and goes by fit alone is called the method of maximum
likelihood (ML). In the case of M1 the maximum likelihood hypothesis
has to be = , since there are no others that can do better. In the case
of M2 there is a well known result that tells us that the maximum
likelihood hypothesis is = , where Ƹ is the relative frequency of
heads-up in the observed data. Note that the second step is essential,
since M2 by itself does not specify the value of its adjustable parameter,
and cannot be used to make probabilistic assertions about future data.
Here is how classical Neyman-Pearson hypothesis testing works. The
simpler of two models is the null hypothesis, in this case M1 (see figure
5.1). The decision to accept the null hypothesis or reject the null
hypothesis (and therefore accept M2) depends on how probable the data
would be if the null hypothesis were true. If the data are improbable
given the null hypothesis, then reject the null hypothesis, otherwise
accept it. The degree of improbability is determined by the size or the
level of significance of the test. A size of 5% is fairly standard (p < .05),
which means that the null hypothesis is rejected if the observed data is a
member of a class of possible data sets that collectively has a probability
of 5% given the null hypothesis. The observed relative frequencies that
would be lead to such a rejection are those that fall under the shaded area
in figure 5.1. The value of the relative frequency shown in Figure 1 lies
in that region, so that the null hypothesis is accepted in that case.
Notice that the hypothesis = in M2 fits the observed facts better
than the null hypothesis, yet the null hypothesis is still accepted.
Therefore classical model selection trades off fit for simplicity, provided
that the simpler hypothesis is chosen as the null hypothesis.
There are a number of peculiar features of the classical method of
model selection. First, there is nothing to prevent the more complex
92 Malcolm R. Forster
Null hypothesis
2 Relative
Rejection area
Figure 5.1: Classical Neyman-Pearson hypothesis testing.
model being chosen as the null hypothesis, and there is no reason against
this practice except to say that it is not common practice. Nor is there
any reason for choosing a 5% level of significance other than common
practice. Finally, it is odd that the same tradeoff would be made even if
M2 had many more adjustable parameters than M1. There is no obvious
method for adjusting the size of the test to take account of these features
of the context. Neyman-Pearson methods do not appear to have the kind
of rationale demanded by the three steps described in the introduction.
I have heard only one reply to this charge. The reply is that classical
statistics aims to minimize the probability of rejecting the null hypothesis
when it is true (i.e. minimize type I error), and minimize the probability
of accepting the null hypothesis when it is false (i.e. minimize type II
error), and it does this successfully. I doubt that this is the only aim of
the procedure because I think that working scientists are also interested
in predictive accuracy, and it is not obvious that classical testing brings
us closer to that goal. And, in any case, the two parts to the goal stated
above are incompatible. To minimize type I error, we should choose the
size of the test to be 0%. But that will maximize the type II error. At the
other extreme, one could minimize Type II errors by choosing a 100%
significance level, but that would maximize the Type I error. The actual
practice is a tradeoff between these two extremes. Classical statisticians
need to specify a third goal if the tradeoff is to be principled.
Another objection to the Neyman-Pearson rationale for hypothesis
testing is that it fails to address the problem when both models are false.
For then I would have thought that any choice is in error, so trading off
Type I and Type II errors, which are conditional on one or other of the
models being true, is an irrelevant consideration. In other words, there is
no criterion of partial success. Note that these are criticisms of the
rationale behind the method, and not the methods themselves.
The new science of simplicity 93
In order to explain the AIC and BIC model selection methods in this
example, it is sufficient to think of them as classical Neyman-Pearson
tests, with some special peculiarities. In particular, AIC chooses a
greater rejection area (about 15.7%), while BIC recommends a smaller
rejection area, which further diminishes as the number of data increases.
This is the situation when the competing models differ by one adjustable
parameter, as is the case in our example. Figure 5.2 plots the critical
point (the point defining the boundary of the rejection area) as a function
of the number of coin tosses. Notice that as the number of tosses
increases, a smaller deviation of the proportion of heads up from the null
result of 50% will succeed in rejecting the null hypothesis, although BIC
requires are greater deviation in all cases. Therefore BIC gives greater
weight to simplicity in the sense that it requires that there be stronger
evidence against the hypothesis before the simpler null hypothesis is
When the models differ by a dimensions greater than one (such as
would be the case if we were to compare LIN with a family of 10-degree
polynomials), the size of the rejection areas decrease. This is
significantly different from classical Neyman-Pearson testing, which
makes no adjustment.
Number of data (in thousands)
Departure of the observed
relative frequency of heads
above/below 50%
20 40 60 80 100
AIC and Cross-Validation
Figure 5.2: The critical point at which the null hypothesis is rejected
in cross-validation, BIC, and AIC. Classical hypothesis testing
would be between BIC and AIC.
94 Malcolm R. Forster
Bayesians have responded to the conceptual difficulties facing
classical statisticians by bringing in the prior probabilities of the
competing hypotheses and their likelihoods. The posterior probability of
a model is proportional to the product of the prior probability and the
likelihood of the model. Therefore, the Bayesian method of comparing
posterior probabilities appears to address the problem. Certainly, this
approach does make a decision that depends on both of the competing
models, but is it the best policy for comparing the predictive accuracy of
competing models?
Perhaps Bayesians could argue like this: Truth is connected to
predictive accuracy in the sense that there is no hypothesis that can be
more predictively accurate than a true hypothesis, so to maximize the
expected predictive accuracy of a model, we should maximize its
probability. However, this argument is flawed. First, the premise is
false. It is true that for a maximally specific hypothesis?one that gives
precise values to all parameters?no hypothesis can be more accurate
than the true hypothesis. However, this statement does not extend to
models, which assert only that one of its hypotheses is true?models are
very large disjunctions. Therefore, the predictive accuracy of a model is
either undefined, or it depends either on the probabilistic weights given
to its members, or it is identified with the predictive accuracy of the
maximum likelihood hypothesis (if point estimation is used). In either
case, if the predictive accuracy is well defined, then the predictive
accuracy of a true model will be less than the predictive accuracy of the
true hypothesis. It also follows that the predictive accuracy of a false
model can be higher than the predictive accuracy of a true model.
Second, even if the premise were true, the conclusion does not follow.
Maximizing the probability of truth does not always maximize the
expected predictive accuracy. To show this, suppose I predict the
reading (plus or minus a second) on an atomic clock using my watch,
which is 3 seconds fast. My predictive accuracy (suitably defined) is
pretty good, but the probability that my prediction is true is zero.
Contrast that to someone who makes the same prediction on the basis of
a stopped clock. The probability of their prediction being true is higher
than mine, yet their predictive accuracy is lousy.
Another incongruity of this Bayesian approach arises in the case of
nested models, like the ones we are considering. As an independent
example, consider a curve fitting example in which the model of all
linear functions, LIN, is nested in the model of all parabolic functions,
PAR, since all the members of LIN are contained in PAR. This can be
seen by examining the equations: If the coefficient of the squared term
in the equation for PAR is zero, then the equation reduces to the equation
The new science of simplicity 95
for a straight line. Logically speaking, this nested relationship means
that LIN logically entails PAR, in the sense that it is impossible for LIN
to be true and PAR false. It is now a consequence of the axioms of
probability that the LIN can never be more probable than PAR, and this
is true for all probabilities, prior or posterior (Popper 1959, chapter 7).
So, the Bayesian idea that we should select the model with the highest
posterior probability leads to the conclusion that we should never choose
LIN over PAR. In fact, we should never choose PAR over CUBE, where
CUBE is the family of third degree polynomials, and so on. But if we
are interested in predictive accuracy, there will be occasions on which we
should choose LIN over PAR. Therefore, the Bayesian principle cannot
serve the goal of predictive accuracy in this case.
Of course, Bayesians can simply refuse to consider this case. They
might consider LIN versus PAR, where PAR is PAR minus LIN. Then
the models are not nested, and the Bayesian criterion could lead to the
choice of LIN over PAR. But it is puzzling why this difference should
make a difference if we are interested in predictive accuracy, since the
presence or absence of LIN nested in PAR makes no difference to any
prediction, and ipso facto, no difference to the accuracy of any
predictions. The failure of Bayesian principles to yield the same answer
in both cases is a clear demonstration that their methods are not designed
to maximize predictive accuracy. If they succeed in achieving this goal,
then it is a lucky accident.
The goals of probable truth and predictive accuracy are clearly
different, and it seems that predictive accuracy is the one that scientists
care about most. Whenever parameter values are replaced by point
estimates, there is zero chance of that specific value being the true one,
yet scientists are not perturbed by this. Economists dont care whether
their predictions of tomorrows stock prices are exactly right; being close
would still produce huge profits. Physicists dont care whether their
current estimate of the speed of light is exactly true, so long as it has a
high degree of accuracy. Biologists are not concerned if they fail to
predict the exact corn yield of a new strain, so long as they are
approximately right. If the probability of truth were something they
cared about, then point estimation would be a puzzling practice. But if
predictive accuracy is what scientists value, then their methodology
makes sense.
This does not work as a criticism of all Bayesians. Decisiontheoretic
Bayesians could take predictive accuracy as their utility, and
derive a criterion to maximize the expected predictive accuracy. This
decision-theoretic approach is discussed in Young (1987), for example.
However, the classical Bayesian approach is the most influential amongst
96 Malcolm R. Forster
scientists, perhaps because it has led to the useable BIC criterion which
appears to implement Occams razor.7
A decision-theoretic Bayesianism that takes predictive accuracy as
its utility still requires the use of prior probability distributions over
propositions about the predictive accuracies of hypotheses. If we had
such prior knowledge, then the Bayesian approach would make sense.
But we dont. Another way of stating the criticism is that there are
infinitely many Bayesian theories, and there is no way of deciding
amongst them, besides using computer simulations, testing their success
on real predictions, and mathematically analyzing the various criteria
under a variety of assumptions. But this is just to revert to the Akaike
approach, and one might wonder whether Bayesianism is anything more
than the background machinery for generating criteria.
A counter-consideration is that Bayesian decision theory allows us
to incorporate background information in decision-making. Certainly,
when such information is available, it should be used. But Bayesians do
not have a monopoly on background knowledge. It is not even true that
the AIC criterion takes no account of background information, since it
can be applied more globally when there is data relevant to the
hypothesis that falls outside of the prediction problem at hand. For
example, a model of stock market movement may take global economic
parameters into account, and this may be done by considering a broader
base of economic data. AIC requires that the relevance be built explicitly
into the model, whereas Bayesians allow it to be represented in the prior
probabilities. I believe that the background information is better built
into the model, where it is publicly displayed and subjected to debate.
Cross-validation is a method widely used in learning algorithms in
neural networks and in machine learning (e.g., Turney 1994). It is an
interesting method because it appears to make no assumptions at all. The
idea is that a curve is fitted to a subset of the observed data?often the
whole data minus one data point. Such a subset of data is called a
calibrating data set. The predictive accuracy of the fitted model is tested
against the data point or points left out, which may be averaged over all
possible calibrating data sets. Note that this method cannot be applied to
a single specific curve, since the average fit for each data point in the set
7 The earliest reference to this idea I know is Rosenkrantz (1977), except he does not
derive the BIC approximation, which was derived by Schwarz (1978). MacKay
(1995) discusses the same version of Occams razor in apparent ignorance of
previous work. Cheeseman (1990) also discusses the classical Bayesian approach
with even less sophistication and even fewer references.
The new science of simplicity 97
just the fit with respect to the total data set, which reduces to the nave
empiricism of ML.
However, if the method is used to compare models rather than
particular hypotheses, then it has different properties. Each calibrating
data set produces a slightly different best fitting curve in the family and
there will be a penalty for large, complex, families of curves because
large families will tend to produce greater variation in the curve that best
fits a calibrating data set (Turney 1990). This leads to an average fit that
is poorer than the fit of the curve that best fits the total data set. There is
no need to explicitly define simplicity or to quantify its effects on the
stability of estimation; it is taken into account implicitly rather than
explicitly. It is a remarkable fact that this simple method leads to
approximately the same criterion of model selection as AIC in our simple
coin tossing example (see figure 5.2). It is remarkable exactly because
AIC factors in simplicity explicitly while cross validation does not. But
perhaps it is not so surprising once we note that they are both designed
with the same goal in mind  predictive accuracy.8 Methods of cross
validation are worthy of serious attention from scientists, either as a way
of complementing other criteria or as an alternative criterion. I dont
know which, but I believe that the Akaike framework provides the right
tools for such an investigation.
This section has surveyed the variety of inference methods that can
be applied to the easiest example imaginable. Very often the methods
give similar results, but the foundations of those methods vary greatly.
Nevertheless, they should all be considered seriously. The solution is to
evaluate all of them within the Akaike framework (or some natural
extension of it). As you can see, this has been an argument for the
Akaike framework, and not the Akaike criterion (AIC).
4 Predictive accuracy as a goal of model selection
How should we define predictive accuracy? First, we need to distinguish
between seen and unseen data. As a goal, we are interested in the
prediction of unseen data, rather than the data used to construct the
hypothesis. The seen data is the means by which we can forecast how
well the hypothesis will predict unseen data.
However, any particular set of data may exhibit idiosyncrasies due to
random fluctuations of observational error. If we took the goal to be the
8 I have since learned that Stone (1977) proved that AIC is equivalent to leave-one-out
cross-validation asymptotically for large samples, so the result I got is to be expected
because I assumed the same conditions.
98 Malcolm R. Forster
prediction of a single set of unseen data, then the goal is too hard in the
sense that particular errors are impossible to predict, and in other cases
the goal may be achieved by dumb luck. It is therefore customary to
define predictive accuracy differently. The idea is that a predictively
accurate curve is one that is as close as possible to the trend, or
regularity, behind the data. The technical trick used to unpack that idea
is to imagine many data sets generated repeatedly by that regularity (the
true curve) and define the predictive accuracy of an arbitrary hypothesis
as the average fit of the curve with respect to all such data sets. In that
way no particular set of errors fluctuations are given undue emphasis. In
the language of probability, predictive accuracy is the expected fit of data
sets generated by the true probability distribution. The expected value is
therefore objectively defined. It is not the subjective expectation that
would appear in a Bayesian analysis of the problem. This point is worth
examining in greater detail.
Consider a curve fitting example in which y is function of x. Define
the domain of prediction in terms of a probability distribution defined
over the independent variable, p(x). This distribution will define the
range of x-values over which unseen data sets are sampled. There is no
claim that p(x)is objective in the sense of representing an objective
chance, or a propensity of some kind. But it is objectively given once the
domain of prediction is fixed. There are now three cases to consider:
1. There is a true conditional probability densityp*(y x), which is an
objective propensity. Since p(x) is objective (given the domain of
prediction), the joint distribution p(x, y) is objective, because it is the
product of the two.
2. The probability densityp(y x) is an average over the propensities
p*(y x,z), where z refers to one or more variables that affect the
value of y. In this case, one needs to specify the domain of prediction
more finely. One needs to specify the probability distribution p(x, z).
Once p(x, z) is fixed, p(x, y)is determined byp*(y x,z), and is again
3. The independent variable x determines a unique, error free, value of
y. This is the case of noise-free data. The true curve is defined by
the value of y determined by each value of x. What this means is that
all points generated by the p(x, y) will lie exactly on the true curve.
The distribution p(y x) is a Dirac delta function (zero for all values
of y except for one value, such that it integrates to 1). The
probability p(x, y) is still objectively determined from p(x), which
defines the domain of prediction. Moreover, p(x, y) allows for a
statistical treatment of parameter estimation, so it fits into the Akaike
The new science of simplicity 99
Case (3) is important for it shows how a probabilistic treatment of
parameter estimation may be grounded in a probabilistic definition of the
domain of prediction. There is no need to assume that nature is
probabilistic. The only exception to this is when a family of curves
actually contains the true curve, for in that case, there can be no curve
that fits the data better than the true curve, and the estimated parameter
values are always the true ones, and there will be no variation from one
data set to the next. In this case, the framework will not apply. I believe
that this is not a severe limitation of the framework since it is plausible to
suppose that it arises very rarely. Therefore, in general, once the domain
is fixed, the probability of sets of data generated by the true distribution
in this domain is objectively determined by the true distribution.
The relativization of predictive accuracy to a domain has meaningful
consequences. In many cases, a scientist is interested in predictions in a
domain different from the one in which the data are sampled. For
example, in time series, the observed data is sampled from the past, but
the predictions pertain to the future. In the Akaike framework, the
default assumption is that the domain of prediction is the same as the
domain in which the data are sampled. It is imagined, in other words,
that new data are re-sampled from the past. If the time series is
stationary, then the past is effectively the same as the future. But in
general this is not true, in which case it is an open question whether the
standard model selection criteria apply (for discussion, see Forster,
2000). It is an advantage of the Akaike framework that such issues are
raised explicitly.
Predictive accuracy is the expected fit of unseen data in a domain, but
this definition is not precise until the notion of fit is precise. A common
choice is the sum of squared deviations made famous by the method of
least squares. However, squared deviations do not make sense in every
example. For instance, when probabilistic hypotheses are devised to
explain the relative frequency of heads in a hundred tosses by the fairness
of the coin, the hypothesis does not fit the data in the sense of squared
deviations. In these cases, an appropriate measure of fit is the likelihood
of the hypothesis relative to the data (the probability of the data given the
However, does the likelihood measure apply to all cases? In order for
the hypothesis to have a likelihood, we need the hypothesis to be
probabilistic. In curve fitting, we do that by associating each hypothesis
with an error distribution. In that way, the fit of a hypothesis with any
data set is determined by the hypothesis itself, and is therefore an entirely
objective feature of the hypothesis. When the error distribution is normal
(Gaussian), then the log-likelihood is proportional to the sum a squared
100 Malcolm R. Forster
deviations. When the error distribution is not normal, then I take the loglikelihood
to be the more fundamental measure of fit.
Before we can state the goal of curve fitting, or model selection in
general, we need a clear definition of the predictive accuracy of an
arbitrary hypothesis. We are interested in the performance of a
hypothesis in predicting data randomly generated by the true hypothesis.
We have already explained that this can be measured by the expected
log-likelihood of newly generated data. But we do not want this goal to
depend on the number of data n because we do not really care whether
the unseen data set is of size n or not. It is convenient to think of the
unseen data sets as the same size as the seen data set, but it is surely not
necessary. Unfortunately, the log-likelihood relative to n data increases
as n increases. So, in order that the goal not depend on n we need to
define the predictive accuracy of a hypothesis h as the expected per
datum log-likelihood of h relative to data sets of size n. Under this
definition, the predictive accuracy of a fixed hypothesis will be the same
no matter what the value of n, at least in the special case in which the
data are probabilistically independent and identically distributed.9
Formally, we define the predictive accuracy of an arbitrary hypothesis
h as follows. Let E* be the expected value with respect to the objective
probability distribution p*(x, y), and let Data(n) be an arbitrary data set
of n data randomly generated by p*(x, y). Then the predictive accuracy
of h, denoted by A(h), is defined as
A(h) 1E* loglikelihood(Data(n))
= ,
where E* denotes the expected value relative to the distribution p*(x, y).
The goal of curve fitting, and model selection in general, is now well
defined once we say what the hs are.
Models are families of hypotheses. Note that, while each member of
the family has an objective likelihood, the model itself does not.
Technically speaking, the likelihood of a model is an average likelihood
of its members, but the average can only be defined relative to a
subjective distribution over its members. So, the predictive accuracy of a
model is undefined (except when there is only one member in the
model). 10
Model selection proceeds in two steps. The first step is to select a
model, and the second step is to select a particular hypothesis from the
9 For in that case, the expected log-likelihood is n times the expected log-likelihood of
each datum.
10 There are ways of defining model accuracy (Forster and Sober, 1994), but I will not
do so here because it complicates the issue unnecessarily.
The new science of simplicity 101
model. The second step is well known in statistics as the estimation of
parameters. It can only use the seen data, and I will assume that it is the
method of maximum likelihood estimation. Maximizing likelihood is
the same as maximizing the log-likelihood, which selects the hypothesis
that best fits the seen data. If an arbitrary member of the model is
identified by a vector of parameter values, denoted by , then Ƹ denotes
the member of the model that provides the best fit with the data. Each
model produces a different best fitting hypothesis, so the goal of model
selection is to maximize the predictive accuracy of the best fitting cases
drawn from rival models. This is the first complete statement of the goal
of model selection.
In science, competing models are often constrained by a single
background theory. For example, Newton first investigated a model of
the earth as a uniformly spherical ball, but found that none of the
trajectories of the earths motion derived from this assumption fit the
known facts about the precession of the earths equinoxes. He then
complicated the model by allowing for the fact that the earths globe
bulges at the equator and found that the more complicated model was
able to fit the equinox data. The two models are Newtonian models of
the motion. However, there is no reason why Newtonian and Einsteinian
models cannot compete with each other in the same way (Forster,
2000a). In fact, we may suppose that there are no background theories.
All that is required is that the models share the common goal of
predicting the same data.
In the model selection literature, the kind of selection problem
commonly considered is where the competing models form a nested
hierarchy, like the hierarchy of k-degree polynomials. Each model in the
hierarchy has a unique dimension k, and the sequence of best fitting
members is denoted by
k . The predictive accuracy of
k is denoted by
( ) k A . This value does not depend on the number of data, n. In fact, the
predictive accuracy is not a property of the seen data at all?except in the
sense that
k is a function of the seen data. The aim of model selection
in this context is to choose the value of k for which (k) A has the highest
value in the hierarchy.
Note that
k will not be the predictively most accurate hypothesis in
the model k.
k fits the seen data the best, but it will not, in general,
provide the best average fit of unseen data. The random fluctuations in
any data set will lead us away from the predictively most accurate
hypothesis in the family, which is denoted by *
k . However, from an
epistemological point of view, we dont know the hypothesis *
k , so we
have no choice but to select
k in the second step of curve fitting. So, our
goal is to maximize (k) A , and not ( *k) A . In fact, the maximization of
( *)k A would lead to the absurd result that we should select the most
102 Malcolm R. Forster
complex model in the hierarchy, since ( *k) A can never decrease as k
While I am on the subject of what the goal is not, let me note that
getting the value of k right is not the goal either. It is true that in
selecting a model in the hierarchy we also select of value of k. And in
the special case in which ( *)k A stops increasing at some point in the
hierarchy, then that point in the hierarchy can be characterized in terms
of a value of k, which we may denote as k*. In other words, k* is the
smallest dimensional family in the hierarchy that contains the most
predictively accurate hypothesis to occur anywhere in the hierarchy (if
the true hypothesis is in the hierarchy, then k* denotes the smallest true
model). But model selection aims at selecting the best hypothesis
k ,
and this may not necessarily occur when k = k*. After all,
k could be
closer to the optimal hypothesis when k is greater than k* since the
optimal hypothesis is also contained in those higher dimensional models.
I will return to this point in section 7, where I defend AIC against the
common charge that it is not statistically consistent.
5 A normality assumption and the geometry of parameter space
There is a very elegant geometrical interpretation of predictive accuracy
in the special case in which parameter estimates conform to a
probabilistic description that I shall refer to as the normality condition. It
is good to separate the condition from the question about what justifies
the assumption. I will concentrate on its consequences and refer the
inter-ested reader to Cramr (1946, chs. 32-4) for the theory behind the
Consider the problem of predicting y from x in a specified domain of
prediction. As discussed in the previous section, there is a true
distribution p(x,y), which determines how the estimated parameter
values in our models vary from one possible data set to the next. We can
imagine that a large dimensional model K contains the true distribution,
even though the model K is too high in the hierarchy to be considered in
practice. In fact, we could define the hierarchy in such a way that it
contains the true distribution, even though every model considered in
practice will be false. So, let the point * in the model K represent the
true distribution. The maximum likelihood hypothesis in K is
K , which
we may denote more simply by Ƹ . There are now two separate functions
over parameter space to consider. The first is the probability density for
Ƹ over the parameter space, which we could denote by (

second is the likelihood function, L(Data), which records the
probability of the data given any particular point in parameter space.
Both are defined over points in parameter space, but each has a very
different meaning. The normality
The new science of simplicity 103
assumption describes the nature of each function, and then connects them
1. The distribution f () is a multivariate normal distribution centered
at the point * with a bell-shaped distribution around that point
whose spread is determined by the covariance matrix *. The
covariance matrix * is proportional to 1/n, where n is the sample
size (that is, the distribution is more peaked as n increases).
2. The likelihood function L(Data) is proportional to a multivariate
normal distribution with mean Ƹand covariance matrix .11 As n
increases, logL(Data) increases proportionally to n, so that is
proportional to 1Dn.
3. is equal to *.
The exact truth of condition (3) is an unnecessarily strong condition, but
its implications are simple and clear. Combined with (1) and (2), it
implies that log-likelihoods and predictive accuracies vary according to
the same metric; namely squared distances in parameter space. More
precisely, there is a transformation of parameter space in which is
equal to I/n, where I is the identity matrix and n is the sample size. The
per-datum log-likelihood of an arbitrary point is equal to the perdatum
log-likelihood of Ƹ minus n| |2 , where | |2 is the
square of the Euclidean distance between and Ƹ in the transformed
parameter space. Moreover, the predictive accuracy of the same point
is equal to the predictive accuracy of * minus 2 *  . Since Ƹ is
a multivariate normal random variable distributed around * with
covariance matrix IDn, n( *) is a multivariate normal random
variable with mean zero and covariance matrix I. It follows that
n| *|2 is a chi-squared random variable with K degrees of freedom,
and that | *|2 is a random variable with mean K Dn.
Similar conclusions apply to lower models in the hierarchy of
models, assuming that they are represented as subspaces of the Kdimensional
parameter space. Without loss of generality, we may
suppose that the parameterization is chosen so that an arbitrary member
of the model of dimension k is ( ) 1 2 , , , ,0, ,0 k ? ? , where the last K  k
parameter values are 0. The predictively most accurate member of model
k, denoted *
k , is the projection of * onto the subspace and
k is the
projection of Ƹ onto the same subspace.
11 The likelihood function is not a probability function because it does not integrate to 1.
104 Malcolm R. Forster
We may now use the normality assumption to understand the
relationship between (k) A and ( *k) A . First note that *
k is fixed,
so ( *k) A is a constant. On the other hand,
k varies randomly around *
according to a k-variate normal distribution centered at *
k . We know
that ( *)k A is greater than (k) A , since ( *)k A is the maximum by
definition. Moreover, (k) A is less than ( *)k A by an amount proportional
to the squared distance between
k and *
k in the k-dimensional
subspace. Therefore,
( ) ( ) 2
k k A A
=  ,
where 2
k is a chi-squared random variable of k degrees of freedom. It is
a well known property of the chi-squared distribution that 2
k has a mean,
or expected value, equal to k. That leads to the relationship between the
bottom two plots in figure 5.3. Note that while ( *)k A can never decrease
(because the best in k +1 is at least as good as the best in k), it is also
bounded above (since it can never exceed the predictive accuracy of the
true hypothesis). This implies that the lower plot of (k) A as a function
of k will eventually reach a maximum value and then decrease as k
increases. Hence model selection aims at a model of finite dimension,
even though the predictive accuracy ( *)k A of the best hypothesis in the
model will always increase as we move up the hierarchy (or, at least, it
can never decrease). The distinction between
k around *
k is crucial to our
under-standing of model selection methodology.
As an example, suppose that a Fourier series is used to approximate a
function. Adding new terms in the series can improve the potential accuk0
* log (k) E L n

* ( )
k EA

A k c * h
Figure 5.3 The behavior of various quantities in a nested
hierarchy of models.
The new science of simplicity 105
racy of fit indefinitely; however, the problem with overfitting is overwhelming
when there are too many parameters to estimate. An historical
illustration of this phenomenon is the case of ancient Ptolemaic
astronomy, where adding epicycles can always improve the
approximation to the planetary trajectories, yet adding epicycles beyond a
certain point does not improve prediction in practice. The present
framework explains this fact.
Denote the k for which (k) A is maximum as 0 k . The value of 0 k
depends on the estimated parameter values (on the
k ), which depends
on the actual data at hand. There will be a tendency for 0 k to increase as
the number of seen data increases. This is observed in figure 5.3. The
middle curve (the curve for ( *)k A ) is entirely independent of the seen
data, but the mean curve for (k) A hangs below it by a distance k/n. As n
increases, it will hang closer to the middle curve, and so its maximum
point will move to the right. Therefore a richer data set justifies an
increase in complexity?something that is intuitively plausible on the
idea that more data allow for the more accurate estimation of complex
regularities. For example, a parabolic trend in a small set of data is more
readily explained away as an accidental deviation from a linear
regularity, while the same parabolic trend in a large number of data is not
so easily dismissed.
The relationship between ( ) k A and ( *)k A exhibits what is
commonly called the bias/variance tradeoff (Geman et al, 1992). Let me
first explain what is meant by the terms bias and variance. Model
bias is the amount that the best case in the model is less predictively
accurate than the true hypothesis. By best case, I mean the hypothesis
in the model with the highest predictive accuracy, not the best fitting
case. In other words, model bias is the difference between ( *)k A and the
predictive accuracy of the true hypothesis. As ( *k) A increases (see
figure 5.3), it gets closer to the best possible value, so the model bias
decreases. Of course, we do not know which hypothesis is the most
predictively accurate. So, model bias is not something that models wear
on their sleeves. Nevertheless, we can make some reasonable guesses
about model bias. For example, the model that says that planets orbit the
sun on square paths is a very biased model because the best possible
square orbit is not going fit the true orbit very well. At the other
extreme, any model that contains the true hypothesis has zero bias. In
nested models, the bias is less for more complex hypotheses.
The variance, on the other hand, refers to the squared distance of the
best fitting hypothesis
k from the most predictively accurate hypothesis
. It is governed by the chi-squared variable in the previous equation.
The variance of estimated hypothesis from the best case favors
106 Malcolm R. Forster
In conclusion, complexity is good for reduction of bias, whereas simplicity
reduces the tendency to overfit. The optimum model is the one
that makes the best tradeoff between these two factors. The bias/variance
dilemma refers to the fact that as we go up in a hierarchy of nested
models, the bias decreases, but the expected variance increases. A model
selection criterion aims at the best trade off between bias and variance,
but neither bias nor variance is known, so this theoretical insight does not
lead directly to any criteria. It tells us what we aim to do, not how to do
An interesting special case is where a family 1 k at some point in the
hierarchy already contains the true hypothesis. In that case, there is no
decrease in bias past that point. But going higher in the hierarchy leads
to some loss, because the additional parameters will produce a tendency
to overfit. This means that going from model k1 to k1 +1 has no expected
advantages in terms of predictive accuracy. So, it would be best to stop
in this case. However, this fact does not lead to a criterion either, unless
we know that the 1 k model is true. If we already knew that, we would
need no criterion.
6 Comparing selection criteria
In this section I will compare the performance of AIC and BIC in the
selection of two nested models differing by one adjustable parameter in
contexts in which the normality assumption holds. While the normality
condition will not hold for many examples, it is a central case in statistics
because the Central Limit theorems show that it holds in a wide variety
of circumstances (see Cramr 1946, chapters 32 and 33). More
importantly, the arguments leveled against AIC in favor of BIC are
framed in this context. So, my analysis will enable us to analyze those
arguments in the next section.
The normality assumption also determines the stochastic behavior of
the log-likelihood of the seen data, and we can exploit this knowledge to
obtain a criterion of model selection. Let log ( k ) L be the log-likelihood
k relative to the seen data. If
k is a random variable, then
log ( ) k L n is also a random variable. Its relationship to ( ) k A is also
displayed in figure 5.3: log ( k ) L n is, on average, higher than ( ) k A by a
value of k/n (modulo a constant, which doesnt matter because it cancels
out when we compare models). So, an unbiased12 estimate of the
predictive accuracy
12 An estimator of a quantity (in this case an estimator of predictive accuracy) is
unbiased if the expected value of the estimate is equal to the quantity being
estimated. This sense of bias has nothing to do with model bias.
The new science of simplicity 107
of the best fitting curve in any model is given by log ( k ) L nkn. If
we judge the predictive accuracies of competing models by this estimate,
then we should choose the model with the highest value of
log ( ) k L nkn. This is the Akaike information criterion (AIC).
The BIC criterion (Schwarz 1978) maximizes the quantity
log ( ) log[ ] 2 k L nk n n, giving a greater weight to simplicity by a
factor of log[n] 2 . This factor is quite large for large n, and has the
effect of selecting a simpler model than AIC. As we shall see, this an
advantage in some cases and a disadvantage in other cases. There is an
easy way of understanding why this is so. Consider two very extreme
selection rules: The first I shall call the Always-Simple rule because it
always selects the simpler model no matter what the data say.
Philosophers will think of this rule as an extreme form a rationalism.
The second rule goes to the opposite extreme and always selects the
more complex model no matter what the data, which I call the Always-
Complex rule. In the case of nested models, the Always-Complex rule
always selects the model with the best-fitting specification and is
therefore equivalent to a maximum likelihood (ML) rule. It is also a rule
that philosophers might describe as a nave form of empiricism, since it
gives no weight to simplicity. BIC and AIC are between these two rules:
BIC erring towards the Always-Simple side of the spectrum, while AIC
is closer to the ML rule.
Consider any two nested models that differ by one adjustable
parameter, and assume that normality conditions apply approximately.
Note we need not assume that the true hypothesis is in either model
(although the normality conditions are easier to satisfy when it is). The
simple example in section 3 is of this type, but the results here are far
more general. The only circumstance that affects the expected
performance of the rules in this context is the difference in the model
biases between the two models. The model bias, remember, is defined as
the amount that the most predictively accurate member of the family is
less predictively accurate than the true hypothesis. Under conditions of
normality, the difference in model bias is proportional to the squared
distance between the most accurate members of each model. In our easy
example, this is proportional to 1 2
(* 2) . Note that the Always-Simple
rule selects the hypothesis 1
= 2 and the ML rule selects the hypothesis
= , where Ƹ is the maximum likelihood value of the statistic (the
relative frequency of heads up in our example). Under the normality
assumption the predictive accuracies of these hypotheses are proportional
to the squared distance to * in parameter space. That is,
( 1) ( 1)2
A=2=const.*2 and ( ) ( )2 A==const.*.
108 Malcolm R. Forster
Therefore, the null hypothesis 1
2 Ƹ = is a better choice than the
alternative = if and only if is closer to * than Ƹ is to *.
Notice that the first distance is proportional to the complex models
advantage in bias, while the expected value of the second squared
distance is just the variance of the estimator Ƹ . Therefore, the ML rule
is more successful than the Always-Simple rule, on average, if and only
if, the advantage in model bias outweighs the increased variance, or
expected overfitting, that comes with complexity. This is the
bias/variance dilemma.
A simple corollary to this result is that the two extreme rules, Always-
Simple and Always-Complex, enjoy the same success (on average) if the
model bias advantage exactly balances the expected loss due to variance.
It is remarkable that two diametrically opposed methods can be equally
successful in some circumstances. In fact, we may expect that all rules,
like BIC and AIC, will perform equivalently when the bias difference is
equal to the variance difference.
The situation in which the bias and variance differences are equal is a
neutral point between two kinds of extremes?at one end of the
spectrum the variance is the dominant factor, and at the other extreme,
the bias difference is the overriding consideration. In the first case
simplicity is the important factor, while in the second case goodness of
fit is the important criterion. So, when the model bias difference is less
than the expected difference in variance, we may expect BIC to perform
better since it gives greater weight to simplicity. And when the model
bias is greater than the variance, we may expect AIC to perform better
than BIC, though neither will do better than ML.
These facts are confirmed by the results of computer computations
shown in figure 5.4. In that graph, the expected gain in predictive accuracy,
or what amounts to the same thing, the gain in expected predictive
accuracy, is plotted against the model bias difference between the two
models in question. Higher is better. The expected performance of nave
empiricist method of ML is taken as a baseline, so the gain (or loss if the
gain is negative) is relative to ML. The performance is therefore
computed as follows. Imagine that a data set of size n is randomly
generated by the true distribution in a domain of prediction. The method
in question then selects its hypothesis. If it is the same as the ML
hypothesis, then the gain is zero. If it chooses the simpler model, then
the gain will be positive if the resulting hypothesis is predictively more
accurate, and negative if it is less accurate, on average. The overall
performance of the method is calculated as its expected gain. The
expectation is calculated by weighting each possible case by the relative
frequency of its occurrence as determined by the true distribution.
The new science of simplicity 109
The performance of any method will depend on the difference in bias
between the two models. The horizontal axis is scaled according to raw
(un-squared) distances in parameter space, so it is actually represents the
square root of the model bias differences.13 On the far left is the special
case in which both models have the same bias. That is the point at which
there is no advantage in complexity. To the right are points for which the
model bias is decreased in the more complex model. For nested models,
the bias factor will always favor the more complex model, although this
is not always true for non-nested models.
The rest of the context is held fixed: The models differ by one
adjustable parameter, the number of seen data is fixed, and normality
conditions hold. Remember that the seen data set itself is not held fixed.
We are interested in the expected performance averaged over all possible
seen data sets of size n, where the expectation is determined by the true
The curve labeled the optimum rule in figure 4 records the perfor-
13 If it were scaled by the squared distances, then the results would look even less
favorable to the BIC criterion.
Predictive accuracy
above ML
Neutral point
n = 100
* *
* *
2 1
Figure 5.4 At the neutral point, the advantage of bias had by the
complex model balances its disadvantage in variance, and all
selection rules result in roughly the same expected predictive
accuracy. In situations where the difference in model bias is
smaller, methods that favor simplicity do better, like BIC, while in
all other contexts, it is better to give less weight to simplicity, in
which case AIC does better than BIC. The plot looks the same for
a very wide variety of values of n.
110 Malcolm R. Forster
mance of the following perfect method of selection: of the two hypothesis,
choose the one that is the most predictively accurate. Sometimes
the simpler model will win, sometimes the more complex model will
win. In the cases in which the simpler model is chosen, the policy is
doing the opposite from the ML method. This policy does better than
ML when the model bias gain is relatively small, which reflects the fact
that the decreased overfitting outweighs the loss in model bias. But
when the model bias advantage of complex models is large enough, the
complex model is almost always doing better in spite of its greater
tendency to overfit. Note that the optimum rule cannot be implemented
in practice, for it supposes that we know the predictive accuracies of the
hypotheses in question. Of course, we do not know this. Real methods
can only make use of things we know, like the number of adjustable
parameters, the number of seen data, and the fit with seen data. The
optimum curve is shown on the graph because it marks the absolute
upper bound in performance for any real criterion.
BIC manages to meet that optimum for the special case (on the far left
in Figure 4) in which both models are equally biased. In our easy
example, this corresponds to the case in which the null hypothesis is
actually true ( 1
* = 2 ). If we knew this were the case, then we would
want to choose the null hypothesis no matter what the data are, which is
to say that the Always-Simple rule is also optimum in this situation. It is
hardly surprising that both these rules do better than AIC in this situation.
Nevertheless, this situation may be relevant to scientific research.
Raftery (1994) argues that this situation is likely to arise in regression
problems in which scientists consider many possible independent
variables when few, if any, are truly relevant to the dependent variable.
In an extreme case we can imagine that a set of 51 variables are all
probabilistically independent. Pick one as the depend variable and
consider all models that take this variable to be a linear function of some
proper subset of the remaining variables. Since the coefficients of each
term in the equation can be zero, all of the models contain the true
hypothesis (in which all the coefficients are zero). Therefore all the
models are unbiased (in fact, they are all true). That means that complex
models lose by their increased tendency to overfit, and have no
compensating gains in bias. For instance, in comparing two nested
models in which one adds a single independent variable, AIC will
incorrectly add the variable 15.7% of the time no matter how many data
we collect. BIC will make this mistake less often, and the frequency of
the mistake diminishes to zero as we collect more data.
While AIC is making a mistake in this situation, the mistake is not as
bad as it sounds. The goal is to maximize predictive accuracy, and the
severity of the mistake is measured by the loss in predictive accuracy. If
The new science of simplicity 111
the estimated value of the coefficient of the added variable is close to
zero, then the loss in predictive accuracy may be very small. Even the
extreme case of adopting the maximum likelihood rule (ML), which adds
all 50 variables, the loss in predictive accuracy due to overfitting is equal
to 50/n, on average, which diminishes as n increases.14 AIC will tend to
add about 8 variables, instead of 50, although the loss will be more than
8/n because it will add the variables with the larger estimated
coefficients. The plot in Figure 4 suggests that the loss is around 28/n.
For smaller n, this may be quite a large loss, but notice that the loss tends
to zero as n increases, despite that fact that the proportion of wrongly
added variables does not tend to zero. That is why it is important to be
clear about the goal (I will return to this point in the next section).
In the plot in figure 5.4, n = 100. But, surprisingly, the plots look the
same for a wide variety of values I tested, from n = 100, and up. Again,
the reason that the relative performance of BIC and AIC does not change
much is because of the fact that the relative cost of each BIC mistake
goes up even though the frequency of BIC mistakes diminishes for BIC.
Note that the absolute cost, in terms of predictive accuracy, decreases to
zero for both methods as n tends to infinity.
Before leaving the special case, it is important to emphasize that
scientists do not know that they are in such a situation. If they did know,
there would be no need for any method of model selection?just pick the
simplest model. It is precisely because the context is unknown that
scien-tists want to use a selection rule. So, it would be wrong to prefer
BIC solely on the basis of what happens in this special case.
The raison dtre of model selection is the possibility of facing the
situations represented further to the right on the x-axis in Figure 4. There
we quickly approach the neutral point at which all real methods
perform approximately the same. This point occurs when the model bias
difference equals the variance of the true distribution (of the parameter
estimator). With the units we have chosen, this occurs at the point
marked 1 n . At points of greater difference in model bias, the fortunes
of BIC and AIC change dramatically, and at model bias differences
corresponding to about 3 standard deviations, BIC is paying a huge price
for weighing simplicity so heavily.
In the case illustrated, the competing models differ by just one adjustable
parameter(k=1). In other computer computations, I have found
that BIC has an even greater disadvantage on the right-hand side of the
14 This is because the maximum likelihood hypothesis is, on average, a (squared)
distance of 1/n from the optimum hypothesis, * (see figure 5.4). (This depends on
an appropriate scaling of distances in parameter space.) The loss is then multiplied
for each variable.
112 Malcolm R. Forster
neutral point, while its advantage over AIC on the left is less. The near
optimality of BIC in one case exposes us to considerable risk in other
It is interesting to consider what happens when the number of seen
data, n, increases. I have defined model bias in a way that does not
depend on n, so the point on the x-axis in Figure 4 that represents the
context we are in does not change as n changes. As n increases, the
relative shapes of the curves do not change, but they shrink in size. That
is, the heights above and below the x-axis get smaller inversely
proportionally to n, and the neutral point moves to the left. If we
imagine that the graph is magnified as it shrinks, so it appears the same
size to us, then the only change is that the point on the x-axis that
represents the current context moves to the right. So, what happens if we
steadily increase the number of seen data over time? We start out at an
initial value of n, call it n0. Then we collect more data, and n increases.
At the beginning, we are either to the left of the neutral point or we are
not. If we start at the left, then BIC will be better than AIC initially. But
as the data number increases, we must move through the region in which
BIC is performing poorly. If we do not start out to the left of the neutral
point, then AIC is never worse than BIC. So, no matter what happens,
we are exposed to a case in which BIC is worse than AIC as the sample
size increases. In the limit as n tends to infinity, all methods
approximate the optimal curve. So, the risks associated with BIC appear
at intermediate values of n. Analyses that look only at the behavior of
the methods for asymptotically large values of n will overlook this
weakness of BIC at intermediate sample sizes.
The analysis of this section has looked at the comparison of two fixed
nested models. These results do not extend straightforwardly to the case
of selecting models in a hierarchy of nested models (some remarks will
address this in the next section). However, the special case considered
here does substantiate my thesis that BIC pays a price for its near
optimality in one special case.
7 The charge that AIC is inconsistent
It is frequently alleged that AIC is inconsistent,15 while BIC is not,
thereby suggesting that BIC performs better in the limit of large n. This
allegation is repeated in many publications, and in so many con-
15 Philosophers unfamiliar with statistical terminology should note that this does not
refer to logical inconsistency. Rather, an estimator is statistically consistent if it
converges in probability to the true value of what it is trying to estimate (the target
The new science of simplicity 113
versations, that I am unable to document all of them. I will pick on just
one example. Keuzenkamp and McAleer (1995, page 9) state that AIC
fails to give a consistent estimate of k, which they attribute to Rissanen
(1987, page 92) and Schwarz (1978). Bozdogan (1987) takes the
criticism to heart, and derives an extension of AIC that is consistent in
this sense. My conclusion will be that there is no sensible charge to
answer, and so there is no need to modify AIC (at least, not for this
reason). An immediate corollary is that all the competing criteria are
consistent in the relevant sense. In any case, even if it did turn out
unfavorably for AIC, it would be wrong to place too much emphasis on
what happens in the long term, when scientists are only interested in
finite data.16
There are actually many different questions that can be asked about
the consistency of AIC. The first is whether AIC is a consistent method
of maximizing predictive accuracy in the sense of converging on the
hypothesis with the greatest predictive accuracy in the large sample limit.
The second is whether AIC is consistent estimator of predictive accuracy,
which is a subtlety different question from the first. And the third is
whether AIC converges to the smallest true model in a nested hierarchy
of models. The answer to the first two questions will be yes, AIC is
consistent in this sense while the answer to the third is no, AIC is not
consistent in this sense, but this fact does not limit its ability to achieve
its goal. Here are the details.
Whatever it means to estimate k, it is certainly not what AIC was
designed to estimate. The goal defined by Akaike (1973) was to estimate
predictive accuracy. Because Akaike is the author of this approach, the
charge that AIC is inconsistent might be read by many observers as
saying that AIC is an inconsistent estimate of predictive accuracy. I will
begin by showing that this charge of inconsistency is false, and then
return to the quoted charge.
Akaikes own criterion minimizes the quantity 2(log ( ) ) k  L k,
which estimates 2 ( ) k  nA . But note that this is a strange thing to
estimate, since it depends on the number of seen data, n. It is like
estimating the sum of heights of n people drawn from a population. The
target value would be n, where is the mean height in the population.
Rather, the target should be a feature of the population alone, namely .
To proceed otherwise is to mix up the means to the goal, which is a
function of n, and the goal itself (which is not a function of n). So, the
correct procedure is to use the sample mean, x , to estimate , and this is
a consistent estimate.
16 See Sober (1988) for a response to the inconsistency of likelihood estimation in some
situations, and Forster (1995, section 3) for a critique of the Bayesian idea that priors
are harmless because they are washed out in the long run.
114 Malcolm R. Forster
Now suppose we were to use n x to estimate n. Then of course the
estimator would be inconsistent because the error of estimation grows
with increasing n. This is hardly surprising when the target value keeps
growing. The correct response to this problem would be to say, as everyone
does, that x is a consistent estimate of . Surprisingly, this is
exactly the situation with respect to AIC. AIC, in Akaikes formulation,
is an inconsistent estimate because its target value grows with n. Akaike
(1973, 1974, 1977, 1985) sets up the problem in a conceptually muddled
The correct response to the problem is to divide the estimator and
target by n, so that the target does not depend on the sample size. This is
exactly what I have done here, and what Forster and Sober (1994) were
careful to do when they introduced the term predictive accuracy to
represent what the AIC criterion aimed to estimate (Akaike does not use
this term). AIC does provide a consistent estimate of predictive accuracy
when it is properly defined.
Now, let us return to the earlier charge of inconsistency. When there
is talk of estimating k the discussion is typically being restricted to the
context of a nested hierarchy of models. Here there are two cases to
consider. The first is the case in which the true hypothesis appears somewhere
in the hierarchy, while in the second it does not. Let me consider
them in turn.
In the former case, the true hypothesis will first appear in a model of
dimension k*, and in every model higher in the hierarchy. When one
talks of estimating k, one is treating the value of k determined by the
selected model as an estimate of k*. But why should it be desirable that
k be as close as possible to k*? In general it is not desirable. For
example, consider the hierarchy of nested polynomials and suppose that
the true curve is a parabola (i.e., it is in PAR). If the data is sampled
from a relatively narrow region in which the curve is approximately
linear (which is to say that there is not much to gain by going from LIN
to PAR), then for even quite large values of n, it may be best to select
LIN over PAR, and better than any other family of polynomials higher in
the hierarchy. Philosophically speaking, this is the interesting case in
which a false model is better than a true model. However, for
sufficiently high values of n, this will change, and PAR will be the better
choice (because the problem of overfitting is then far less). Again, this is
an example in which asymptotic results are potentially misleading
because they do not extend to intermediate data sizes.
Let us consider the case in which n is large enough to make PAR the
best choice (again in that case in which the true curve is in PAR). Now
AIC will eventually overshoot PAR. Asymptotically, AIC will not converge
on PAR (Bozdogan 1987; Speed and Yu, 1991). This is the basis
The new science of simplicity 115
for the quoted charge that AIC is inconsistent. But how serious are the
consequences of this fact? After all, AIC does successfully converge on
the true hypothesis!
One might object: But how can it converge on the true parabola if it
doesnt converge on PAR? But the objector is forgetting that the true
curve is also in all the models higher in the hierarchy because the models
are nested. So, there is no need for the curve favored by AIC to be in
PAR in order for it to converge to a member of PAR. The fact that I am
right about this is seen independently from the fact that the maximum
likelihood estimates of the parameter values converge to their true
values. This implies that even ML converges on the true hypothesis, and
certainly ML overshoots k* far more than AIC!
In the second case the true hypothesis does not appear anywhere in the
hierarchy of models. In this case the model bias will keep decreasing as
we move up the hierarchy, and there will never be a point at which it
stops decreasing. The situation is depicted in figure 5.3. For each n,
there will be an optimum model k0, and this value will keep increasing as
n increases. The situation here is complicated to analyse, but one thing is
clear. There is no universally valid theorem that shows that BIC does
better than AIC. Their relative performances will depend on the model
biases in the hierarchy in a complicated way.
In both cases, the optimum model moves up the hierarchy as n
increases. In the first case, it reaches a maximum value k*, and then
stops. The crucial point is that in all cases, the error of AIC (as an
estimate of predictive accuracy) converges to zero as n tends to infinity.
So, there is no relevant charge of inconsistency to be leveled against AIC
in any situation. In fact, there is no such charge to be leveled against any
of the methods I have discussed, which is to say that asymptotic results
do not succeed in differentiating any method from any other. The crucial
question concerns what happens for intermediate values of n.
Theoreticians should focus on the harder questions, for there are no easy
knock-down arguments against one criterion or another.
8 Summary of results
The analysis has raised a number of issues: is there any universal proof
of optimality, or more realistically, Is one criterion more optimal than
known competitors? Or does it depend on the circumstances? What is
the sense of optimality involved? I believe that the framework described
in this chapter shows how to approach these questions, and has yielded
some answers in special cases. The main conclusion is that the perfor116
Malcolm R. Forster
mance of model selection criteria varies dramatically from one context to
another. Here is a more detailed summary of these results:
" All model selection criteria may be measured against the common
goal of maximizing predictive accuracy.
" Predictive accuracy is always relative to a specified domain of
prediction, and different domains define different, and perhaps
conflicting, goals.
" It is commonly claimed that AIC is inconsistent. However, all
criteria are consistent in the sense that they converge on the optimum
hypothesis for asymptotically large data sizes.
" Because all methods are consistent in the relevant sense, this
asymptotic property is irrelevant to the comparison of selection
" The relevant differences in the selection criteria show up for
intermediate sized data sets, although what counts as intermediate
may vary from one context to the next.
" When the more complex model merely adds adjustable parameters
without reducing model bias, then BIC makes a better choice than
AIC, but no method does better than always choosing the simpler
model in this context.
" When a more complex model does reduce bias, but just enough to
balance the expected loss due to overfitting, then this is a neutral
point at which all methods enjoy roughly the same degree of
" When a more complex model reduces model bias by an amount that
exceeds the expected loss due to overfitting, then AIC does quite a
lot better than BIC, though ML performs better than both.
The demonstration of these results is limited to the comparison of two
nested models under conditions of normality, and it supposes that the
domain of prediction is the same as the sampling domain (it deals with
interpolation rather than extrapolation?see Forster, 2000 for some
results on extrapolation). This leaves a number of open questions. How
do these results extend to hierarchies of nested models, and to non-nested
models? What happens when normality conditions do not apply? What
if the domain of prediction is different from the domain from which the
data are sampled? While I have few answers to these questions, I have
attempted to describe how such an investigation may proceed.
What are the practical consequences of these results? In the case
investigated here, I have plotted the relative performances of model
selection criteria against the biases of the models under consideration.
The problem is that the model biases are generally unknown.
A sophisticated Bayesian might assign a prior probability distribution
over the model biases. For example, if the model biases along the x-axis
The new science of simplicity 117
in figure 5.4 have approximately the same weight, then the expected
performance of AIC will be better than BIC. If such a prior were
available, it would not only adjudicate between AIC and BIC, but it
would also allow one to design a third criterion that is better than both.
However, it is difficult to see how any such prior could be justified.
If such priors are unavailable, then it seems sensible to favor AIC over
BIC, if that were the only choice.17 After all, AIC is a better estimator of
predictive accuracy than BIC, since BIC is a biased18 estimator of
predictive accuracy. When you correct for the bias in BIC you get AIC.
BIC merely sacrifices bias with no known gain in efficiency or any other
desirable property of estimators.
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