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2.5: AIC versus Bayes

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  • Before I conclude this section, I want to highlight another difference in the way that AIC and Bayes approaches deal with model complexity. This relates to a subtle philosophical distinction that is controversial among statisticians themselves so I will only sketch out the main point; see a real statistics book like Burnham and Anderson (2003) or Gelman et al. (2013) for further details. When you compare Bayes factors, you assume that one of the models you are considering is actually the true model that generated your data, and calculate posterior probabilities based on that assumption. By contrast, AIC assumes that reality is more complex than any of your models, and you are trying to identify the model that most efficiently captures the information in your data. That is, even though both techniques are carrying out model selection, the basic philosophy of how these models are being considered is very different: choosing the best of several simplified models of reality, or choosing the correct model from a set of alternatives.

    The debate between Bayesian and likelihood-based approaches often centers around the use of priors in Bayesian statistics, but the distinction between models and “reality” is also important. More specifically, it is hard to imagine a case in comparative biology where one would be justified in the Bayesian assumption that one has identified the true model that generated the data. This also explains why AIC-based approaches typically select more complex models than Bayesian approaches. In an AIC framework, one assumes that reality is very complex and that models are approximations; the goal is to figure out how much added model complexity is required to efficiently explain the data. In cases where the data are actually generated under a very simple model, AIC may err in favor of overly complex models. By contrast, Bayesian analyses assume that one of the models being considered is correct. This type of analysis will typically behave appropriately when the data are generated under a simple model, but may be unpredictable when data are generated by processes that are not considered by any of the models. However, Bayesian methods account for uncertainty much better than AIC methods, and uncertainty is a fundamental aspect of phylogenetic comparative methods.

    In summary, Bayesian approaches are useful tools for comparative biology, especially when combined with MCMC computational techniques. They require specification of a prior distribution and assume that the “true” model is among those being considered, both of which can be drawbacks in some situations. A Bayesian framework also allows us to much more easily account for phylogenetic uncertainty in comparative analysis. Many comparative biologists are pragmatic, and use whatever methods are available to analyze their data. This is a reasonable approach but one should remember the assumptions that underlie any statistical result.