The Illusion of Distribution-Free Small-Sample Classification in Genomics
Edward R. Dougherty, Amin Zollanvari and Ulisses M. Braga-Neto
Affiliation: Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Texas A University, College Station, TX 77843-3128, USA.
Classification has emerged as a major area of investigation in bioinformatics owing to the desire to discriminate phenotypes, in particular, disease conditions, using high-throughput genomic data. While many classification rules have been posed, there is a paucity of error estimation rules and an even greater paucity of theory concerning error estimation accuracy. This is problematic because the worth of a classifier depends mainly on its error rate. It is common place in bioinformatics papers to have a classification rule applied to a small labeled data set and the error of the resulting classifier be estimated on the same data set, most often via cross-validation, without any assumptions being made on the underlying feature-label distribution. Concomitant with a lack of distributional assumptions is the absence of any statement regarding the accuracy of the error estimate. Without such a measure of accuracy, the most common one being the root-mean-square (RMS), the error estimate is essentially meaningless and the worth of the entire paper is questionable. The concomitance of an absence of distributional assumptions and of a measure of error estimation accuracy is assured in small-sample settings because even when distribution-free bounds exist (and that is rare), the sample sizes required under the bounds are so large as to make them useless for small samples. Thus, distributional bounds are necessary and the distributional assumptions need to be stated. Owing to the epistemological dependence of classifiers on the accuracy of their estimated errors, scientifically meaningful distribution-free classification in high-throughput, small-sample biology is an illusion.
Keywords: Classification, epistemology, error estimation, genomics, validation, illusion, population, phenotypic discriminations, root-mean-square, Gaussian model
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