Skip to main content

The James-Stein Estimator

This write up is about an estimator. A statistical estimator, is used when you already have a model in mind, data at hand and want to estimate some parameters needed for the model. For example, you want to predict how many runs a batter would make in a game given recent history \(x_1,x_2,x_3,\ldots\) . If we assume (we are making a choice of a model now) that the scores come from a normal distribution with mean \(\mu\) and standard deviation \(\sigma\) then the probability density function for a given value \(x\) is

The likelihood that a series of points \(x_1,x_2,x_3,\ldots\) come from such a distribution can be expressed as

Next is basic calculus. Take the logarithm on both sides, set the partial derivative w.r.t. \(\mu\) to zero yields (excluding the algebra)

To verify, you also need to check the second derivative's sign to see if its negative to ensure that it is indeed a maxima you have found.

So a simple estimator would be to use the average runs scored from the past \(n\) days. The average is the result of a "maximum likelihood" approach briefly described above.What if you had 5 players you wanted to estimate the average for? Intuition would tell you that you should simply compute the average for each. Wrong! The James-Stein approach provides a way to pool the data such that the overall error made in estimation is minimized.

Specifically, I'll demonstrate the James-Stein estimator. It is a surprising result discovered by Charles Stein and later formalized by Willard James on estimating such parameters. What makes it stunning is the rather counter intuitive result it demonstrates. James-Stein's estimator approach states that if you wanted to simultaneously estimate a set of independent parameters from data, the maximum likelihood approach is only optimal if you have lesser than 3 parameters to estimate from! If you have more than 3, you are better off using the James-Stein estimator. There is an obvious thought experiment you can think of. If you really wanted just one parameter, could you not simply add an unrelated set of numbers, improve efficiency in estimation and then just use the parameter you are interested in? That's a flaw. The estimator works by minimizing the overall error in estimation so it may make more errors in some of the variables, lesser on others. But overall it will be better than just doing an individual maximum likelihood estimate on each variable. So you could use it if you don't mind seeing slightly bigger errors on some variables, smaller on others but lower overall error.

To see this work, I'll step through the actual algorithm in R. For more details you can refer the wikipedia entry here.The general approach is the following.

  • \(\hat\theta_{js}\) is the James-Stein estimate of the parameters we are interested in computing.
  • \(y\) be the set of values observed.
  • \(\hat{\sigma}^{2}\) be the estimated variance for all parameters
  • \(v\) be the mean of all parameters
then the James Stein estimator is given by

# n.rows is the number of samples we have
n.rows = 100
# n.params is the number of parameters
# we want to estimate
n.params = 30
# wins will hold the number of times
# the JS estimator beats the MLE estimate
wins   = c()
msejs  = c()
msemle = c()
for(iter in seq(1:1000)){
    # Create a sample of parameters
    # They have a range of 20-25
    x.act  = sample(20:25,size=n.params,replace=TRUE)
    # Now create a normal distribution for each of the parameters
    # uncomment below if you want to test it for a poisson distribution
    # m = mapply(rpois,mean=x.act,MoreArgs=list(n = n.rows))
    m = mapply(rnorm,mean=x.act,MoreArgs=list(n = n.rows,sd=10))
    # Find the global mean
    mbar = mean(colMeans(m))
    # Find the column means
    mu0   = colMeans(m)
    # Find global variance
    s2 = var(as.vector(m))/(n.rows*n.params)
    # Compute the adjustment value
    cval    = 1 - ((n.params - 2)*s2/sum((mu0 - mbar)^2))
    # Compute the JS estimate for your parameters
    jsest = mbar + cval *(mu0 - mbar)
    z = data.table(
        actual = x.act,
        mle.est = mu0,
        js.est = jsest)
    # Check to see if the JS estimate is better than MLE
    z[,counter := ifelse(abs(js.est - actual) < abs(mle.est - actual),1,0)]
    # In case you want to see what the numbers are for the
    # difference between absolute and actual estimates for
    # JS and MLE
    z[,jserr  := abs(js.est - actual)]
    z[,mleerr := abs(mle.est - actual)]
    # Record the wins for this iteration of the simulation
    # Repeat.
    wins[iter]   = sum(z$counter)
    msejs[iter]  = sum(z$jserr)
    msemle[iter] = sum(z$mleerr) 
# What are the mean wins? 
# What are the distribution of the mean wins
quantile(wins,prob = seq(0.1,0.9,by=0.1))
z = data.frame(wins = wins)
p = ggplot(z,aes(wins)) +
    geom_histogram(fill='light blue') +
    theme_bw() +
    ggtitle('Of the 30 parameters we wish to estimate:\n how many of them have estimates closer to the actual using the James-Stein estimator than the MLE?') +
    ylab('') +
    xlab('') +
    geom_vline(aes(xintercept=mean(wins),linetype='longdash',colour='blue')) +
    annotate('text',x=18,y=150,label='Mean -->') +

The above R code runs a simulation of sorts. It starts by making some random parameters you would want to estimate and simulates some normally distributed data from it. Next, it uses the James Stein estimator and estimates the very parameters it started off with, using the data. Finally, it compares and records how often the James Stein estimator was better/closer that the MLE estimate. The results from the simulation are shown below.

For kicks, you can try it for a Poisson distribution too, here is what the distribution looks like.

If you are interested in learning more about probability here are a list of books that are good to buy.


Popular posts from this blog

The Best Books to Learn Probability

If you are looking to buy some books in probability here are some of the best books to learn the art of Probability

The Probability Tutoring Book: An Intuitive Course for Engineers and Scientists (and Everyone Else!)
A good book for graduate level classes: has some practice problems in them which is a good thing. But that doesn't make this book any less of buy for the beginner.

An Introduction to Probability Theory and Its Applications, Vol. 1, 3rd Edition
This is a two volume book and the first volume is what will likely interest a beginner because it covers discrete probability. The book tends to treat probability as a theory on its own

Discovering Statistics Using R
This is a good book if you are new to statistics & probability while simultaneously getting started with a programming language. The book supports R and is written in a casual humorous way making it an easy read. Great for beginners. Some of the data on the companion website could be missing.

Fifty Challenging Probl…

The Best Books for Linear Algebra

The following are some good books to own in the area of Linear Algebra.

Linear Algebra (2nd Edition)
This is the gold standard for linear algebra at an undergraduate level. This book has been around for quite sometime a great book to own.

Linear Algebra: A Modern Introduction
Good book if you want to learn more on the subject of linear algebra however typos in the text could be a problem.

Linear Algebra (Dover Books on Mathematics)
An excellent book to own if you are looking to get into, or want to understand linear algebra. Please keep in mind that you need to have some basic mathematical background before you can use this book.

Linear Algebra Done Right (Undergraduate Texts in Mathematics)
A great book that exposes the method of proof as it used in Linear Algebra. This book is not for the beginner though. You do need some prior knowledge of the basics at least. It would be a good add-on to an existing course you are doing in Linear Algebra.

Linear Algebra, 4th Edition
This is good book …

The Best Books for Time Series Analysis

If you are looking to learn time series analysis, the following are some of the best books in time series analysis.

Introductory Time Series with R (Use R!)
This is good book to get one started on time series. A nice aspect of this book is that it has examples in R and some of the data is part of standard R packages which makes good introductory material for learning the R language too. That said this is not exactly a graduate level book, and some of the data links in the book may not be valid.

A great book if you are in an economics stream or want to get into it. The nice thing in the book is it tries to bring out a oneness in all the methods used. Econ majors need to be up-to speed on the grounding mathematics for time series analysis to use this book. Outside of those prerequisites, this is one of the best books on econometrics and time series analysis.

Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
This is excelle…