The likelihood-ratio threshold is the shadow price of statistical power

Cosma Shalizi, an associate professor in statistics at Carnegie Mellon University, gives an interpretation of the likelihood-ratio threshold in an LR test: It’s the shadow price of statistical power:


Suppose we know the probability density of the noise p and that of the signal is q. The Neyman-Pearson lemma, as many though not all schoolchildren know, says that then, among all tests off a given size s, the one with the smallest miss probability, or highest power, has the form “say ‘signal’ if q(x)/p(x) > t(s), otherwise say ‘noise’,” and that the threshold t varies inversely with s. The quantity q(x)/p(x) is the likelihood ratio; the Neyman-Pearson lemma says that to maximize power, we should say “signal” if its sufficiently more likely than noise.

The likelihood ratio indicates how different the two distributions — the two hypotheses — are at x, the data-point we observed. It makes sense that the outcome of the hypothesis test should depend on this sort of discrepancy between the hypotheses. But why the ratio, rather than, say, the difference q(x) – p(x), or a signed squared difference, etc.? Can we make this intuitive?

Start with the fact that we have an optimization problem under a constraint. Call the region where we proclaim “signal” R. We want to maximize its probability when we are seeing a signal, Q(R), while constraining the false-alarm probability, P(R) = s. Lagrange tells us that the way to do this is to minimize Q(R) – t[P(R) – s] over R and t jointly. So far the usual story; the next turn is usually “as you remember from the calculus of variations…”

Rather than actually doing math, let’s think like economists. Picking the set R gives us a certain benefit, in the form of the power Q(R), and a cost, tP(R). (The ts term is the same for all R.) Economists, of course, tell us to equate marginal costs and benefits. What is the marginal benefit of expanding R to include a small neighborhood around the point x? Just, by the definition of “probability density”, q(x). The marginal cost is likewise tp(x). We should include x in R if q(x) > tp(x), or q(x)/p(x) > t. The boundary of R is where marginal benefit equals marginal cost, and that is why we need the likelihood ratio and not the likelihood difference, or anything else. (Except for a monotone transformation of the ratio, e.g. the log ratio.) The likelihood ratio threshold t is, in fact, the shadow price of statistical power.

It seems sensible to me.

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