(This article was originally published at Normal Deviate, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

**BOOTSTRAPPING AND SUBSAMPLING: PART I**

Bootstrapping and subsampling are in the “amazing” category in statistics. They seem much more popular in statistics than machine learning for some reason.

**1. The Bootstrap **

The bootstrap (a.k.a. the shotgun) was invented by Brad Efron. Here is how it works. We have data and we want a confidence interval for . For example, could be the median of or the mean of or something more complicated like, the largest eigenvalue of the covariance matrix of .

The bootstrap confidence interval is

where is an estimator of and and are sample bootstrap quantiles that I will describe below. Before I explain this in more detail, notice two things. First, there is a minus sign in both the lower and upper endpoint. Second, the and quantiles are in the upper and lower endpoints, the reverse of what you might expect. The reason for the strange looking interval will be clear when we derive the interval.

Now for some details. Think of the parameter of interest as a function of the unknown distribution, which is why we write it as . Let denote the empirical distribution:

In other words, is the distribution that puts mass at each .

The estimator is just the function applied to , that is, . For example, if is the median of then is the median of which is just the sample median.

Now let

We use because typically it converges in distribution to some well-defined distribution (such as a Normal). Now let denote the (unknown) distribution of :

Suppose, for a moment, that we did know . We could then find the quantile and the quantile , namely,

It follows that

Continuing with the fantasy that we know , define

Now I will show you that is an exact confidence interval. This follows since

We engineered so that the last line would be exactly . The strange form of is explained by the fact that we really have a probability statement for which we then manipulate into the form of an interval for . (You can check that if were standard Gaussian, then using the symmetry of the Gaussian, the interval could be re-written in the more familiar looking form where is the upper-tail quantile of a Normal.)

The problem is that we don’t know and hence we don’t know or . The bootstrap is a method for approximating . Let be a large number (for example, .) Now do this:

- Draw observations from and compute from these new data.
- Repeat step 1 times yielding values .
- Approximate with
where denotes the indicator function.

- Find the quantiles and of and construct as defined earlier.

The interval is the same as except we use the estimated quantiles for . What we are doing here is estimating by using as an estimate of . (That’s why we draw from .) If is close to then and and then .

There are two sources of error. First we approximate

with

Essentially, we are replacing with . Second, we are approximating with

This second source of error is negligible because we can make as large as we want.

**Remark:** A moment’s reflection should convince you that drawing a sample of size from is the same as drawing points with replacement from the original data. This is how the bootstrap is often described but I think it is clearer to describe it as drawing observations from .

**2. Why Does It Work? **

If is close to then the bootstrap confidence interval will have coverage close to . Formally, one has to show that

in which case

as .

It is non-trivial to show that but it has been shown in some generality. See Chapter 23 of van der Vaart (1998) for example.

**3. Why Does It Fail? **

The bootstrap does not always work. It can fail for a variety of reasons such as when the dimension is high or when is poorly behaved.

An example of a bootstrap failure is in the problem of estimating phylogenetic trees. The problem here is that is an extremely complex object and the regularity conditions needed to make the bootstrap work are unlikely to hold.

In fact, this is a general problem with the bootstrap: it is most useful in complex situations, but these are often the situations where the theory breaks down.

**4. What Do We Do? **

So what do we do when the bootstrap fails? One answer is: subsampling. This is a variant of the bootstrap that works under much weaker conditions than the bootstrap. Interestingly, the theory behind subsampling is much simpler than the theory behind the bootstrap. The former involves little more than a simple concentration inequality while the latter uses high-powered techniques from empirical process theory.

So what is subsampling?

Stay tuned. I will describe it in my next post. In the meantime, I’d be interested to hear about your experiences with the bootstrap. Also, why do you think the bootstrap is not more popular in machine learning?

** References **

Efron, Bradley. (1979). Bootstrap methods: Another look at the jackknife. *The Annals of Statistics*, 1-26.

Efron, Bradley, and Tibshirani, R. (1994). *An Introduction to the Bootstrap*. Chapman and Hall.

Holmes, Susan. (2003). Bootstrapping phylogenetic trees: Theory and methods. *Statistical Science*, 241-255.

van der Vaart, A. (1996). *Asymptotic Statistics*. Cambridge.

P.S. See also Cosma’s post:

here

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