assessing MCMC convergence

When MCMC became mainstream in the 1990’s, there was a flurry of proposals to check, assess, and even guarantee convergence to the stationary distribution, as discussed in our MCMC book. Along with Chantal Guihenneuc and Kerrie Mengersen, we also maintained for a while a reviewww webpage categorising theses. Niloy Biswas and Pierre Jacob have recently posted a paper where they propose the use of couplings (and unbiased MCMC) towards deriving bounds on different metrics between the target and the current distribution of the Markov chain. Two chains are created from a given kernel and coupled with a lag of L, meaning that after a while, the two chains become one with a time difference of L. (The supplementary material contains many details on how to induce coupling.) The distance to the target can then be bounded by a sum of distances between the two chains until they merge. The above picture from the paper is a comparison a Polya-Urn sampler with several HMC samplers for a logistic target (not involving the Pima Indian dataset!). The larger the lag L the more accurate the bound. But the larger the lag the more expensive the assessment of how many steps are needed to convergence. Especially when considering that the evaluation requires restarting the chains from scratch and rerunning until they couple again, rather than continuing one run which can only brings the chain closer to stationarity and to being distributed from the target. I thus wonder at the possibility of some Rao-Blackwellisation of the simulations used in this assessment (while realising once more than assessing convergence almost inevitably requires another order of magnitude than convergence itself!). Without a clear idea of how to do it… For instance, keeping the values of the chain(s) at the time of coupling is not directly helpful to create a sample from the target since they are not distributed from that target.

[Pierre also wrote an blog post about the paper on Statisfaction that is definitely much clearer and pedagogical than the above.]