## Ordinal logistic GM pigs

This week another ‘scary GMO cause disease’ story was doing the rounds in internet: A long-term toxicology study on pigs fed a combined genetically modified (GM) soy and GM maize diet. Andrew Kniss, a non-smokable weeds expert, mentioned in Twitter that the statistical analyses in the study appeared to be kind of dodgy.

Curious, I decided to have a quick look and I was surprised, first, by the points the authors decide to highlight in their results, second, by the pictures and captioning used in the article and, last, by the way of running the analysis. As I’m in the middle of marking assignments and exams I’ll only have a quick go at part of the analysis. As I see it, the problem can be described as ‘there is a bunch of pigs who were fed either non-GM feed or GM feed. After some time (approximately 23 weeks) they were killed and went through a CSI-like autopsy’, where part of the exam involved the following process:

1. Write down the type of feed the pig had during his/her life;
2. Assess the condition of the stomach and put it in one of four boxes labeled ‘Nil’, ‘Mild’, ‘Moderate’ and ‘Severe’.

All this data is summarized in Table 3 of the paper (PDF). How would I go about the analysis? As I see it, we have a categorical response variable—which can take one of four mutually exclusive values—and a categorical predictor (diet). In addition, there is a natural order to the inflammation response variable in that Severe > Moderate > Mild > Nil.

Andrew Kniss wrote a post trying to reproduce the published results. Instead, I present the first approach I would try with the data: ordinal logistic regression. Not only that, but instead of using a hippie statistical software like R, I will use industrial-grade-business-like SAS:

This produces a simple table with the same data as the paper and some very non-exciting results, which are better summarized in a single graph:

The odd ratios would be 1 for no difference between the treatments. The graph shows that the confidence limits for all levels of inflammation include 1, so move on, nothing to see. In fact, GMO-fed pigs tend to have less inflammation for most disease categories.

P.S. There are many ways of running an analysis for this data set, but I’m in favor of approaches that take the whole problem in one go rather than looking at one class at the time. In an ideal situation we would have a continuous assessment for inflammation and the analysis would be a one-way ANOVA. I understand that for practical reasons one may prefer to split the response in four classes.

P.S.2 2013-06-15 I often act as a reviewer for scientific journals. In the case of this article some of my comments would have included: the analysis does not use the structure of the data properly, the photographs of the damaged organs should include both types of diet for each inflammation class (or at least include the most representative diet for the class), and the authors should highlight that there are no significant differences between the two diets for animal health; that is, the trial provides evidence for no difference between feeds. I still feel that the authors should be more forthcoming on terms of disclosing potential conflicts of interest too, but that’s their decision.

P.S.3 2013-07-04 I expand on aspects of the general research process in this post.

Tongue-in-cheek, of course, and with reference to weeds. This blog mostly uses R, but I’m pushing myself to use lots of different software to ‘keep the language’. Now if I could only do this with Spanish.

## Analyzing a simple experiment with heterogeneous variances using asreml, MCMCglmm and SAS

I was working with a small experiment which includes families from two Eucalyptus species and thought it would be nice to code a first analysis using alternative approaches. The experiment is a randomized complete block design, with species as fixed effect and family and block as a random effects, while the response variable is growth strain (in $$mu epsilon$$).

When looking at the trees one can see that the residual variances will be very different. In addition, the trees were growing in plastic bags laid out in rows (the blocks) and columns. Given that trees were growing in bags siting on flat terrain, most likely the row effects are zero.

Below is the code for a first go in R (using both MCMCglmm and ASReml-R) and SAS. I had stopped using SAS for several years, mostly because I was running a mac for which there is no version. However, a few weeks ago I started accessing it via their OnDemand for Academics program via a web browser.

The R code using REML looks like:

While using MCMC we get estimates in the ballpark by using:

The SAS code is not that disimilar, except for the clear demarcation between data processing (data step, for reading files, data transformations, etc) and specific procs (procedures), in this case to summarize data, produce a boxplot and fit a mixed model.

I like working with multiple languages and I realized that, in fact, I missed SAS a bit. It was like meeting an old friend; at the beginning felt strange but we were quickly chatting away after a few minutes.

## Flotsam 11: mostly on books

‘No estaba muerto, andaba the parranda’ as the song says. Although rather than partying it mostly has been reading, taking pictures and trying to learn how to record sounds. Here there are some things I’ve come across lately.

I can’t remember if I’ve recommended Matloff’s The Art of R Programming before; if I haven’t, go and read the book for a good exposition of the language. Matloff also has an open book (as in free PDF, 3.5MB) entitled ‘From Algorithms to Z-Scores: Probabilistic and Statistical Modeling in Computer Science’. The download link is near the end of the page. He states that the reader ‘must know calculus, basic matrix algebra, and have some minimal skill in programming’, which incidentally is the bare minimum for someone that wants to get a good handle on stats. In my case I learned calculus partly with Piskunov’s book (I’m a sucker for Soviet books, free DjVu), matrix algebra with Searle’s book and programming with… that’s another story.

I’ve ordered a couple of books from CRC Press, which I hope to receive soon (it depends on how long it takes for the parcel to arrive to the middle of nowhere):

• Stroup’s Generalized Linear Mixed Models: Modern Concepts, Methods and Applications, which according to the blurb comes ‘with numerous examples using SAS PROC GLIMMIX’. You could be wondering Why is he reading a book that includes SAS as a selling point? Well, SAS is a very good statistical thinking that still has a fairly broad installed based. However, the real selling point is that I’ve read some explanations on mixed models written by Stroup and he has superb understanding of the topic. I’m really looking forward to put my paws on this book.
• Lunn et al.’s The BUGS Book: A Practical Introduction to Bayesian Analysis. I don’t use BUGS but occasionally use JAGS and one of the things that irks me of programs like BUGS, JAGS or INLA is that they follow the ‘here is a bunch of examples’ approach to documentation. This books is supposed to provide a much more detailed account of the ins and outs of fitting models and a proper manual. Or at least that’s what I’m hoping to find in it.

Finally, a link to a fairly long (and somewhat old) list of R tips and the acknowledgements of a PhD thesis that make you smile (via Arthur Charpentier).

‘He was not dead, he was out partying’.

## When R, or any other language, is not enough

This post is tangential to R, although R has a fair share of the issues I mention here, which include research reproducibility, open source, paying for software, multiple languages, salt and pepper.

There is an increasing interest in the reproducibility of research. In many topics we face multiple, often conflicting claims and as researchers we value the ability to evaluate those claims, including repeating/reproducing research results. While I share the interest in reproducibility, some times I feel we are obsessing too much on only part of the research process: statistical analysis. Even here, many people focus not on the models per se, but only on the code for the analysis, which should only use tools that are free of charge.

There has been enormous progress in the R world on literate programming, where the combination of RStudio + Markdown + knitr has made analyzing data and documenting the process almost enjoyable. Nevertheless, and here is the BUT coming, there is a large difference between making the code repeatable and making research reproducible.

As an example, currently I am working in a project that relies on two trials, which have taken a decade to grow. We took a few hundred increment cores from a sample of trees and processed them using a densitometer, an X-Ray diffractometer and a few other lab toys. By now you get the idea, actually replicating the research may take you quite a few resources before you even start to play with free software. At that point, of course, I want to be able to get the most of my data, which means that I won’t settle for a half-assed model because the software is not able to fit it. If you think about it, spending a couple of grands in software (say ASReml and Mathematica licenses) doesn’t sound outrageous at all. Furthermore, reproducing this piece of research would require: a decade, access to genetic material and lab toys. I’ll give you the code for free, but I can’t give you ten years or \$0.25 million…

In addition, the research process may require linking disparate sources of data for which other languages (e.g. Python) may be more appropriate. Some times R is the perfect tool for the job, while other times I feel like we have reached peak VBS (Visual Basic Syndrome) in R: people want to use it for everything, even when it’s a bad idea.

In summary,

• research is much more than a few lines of R (although they are very important),
• even when considering data collection and analysis it is a good idea to know more than a single language/software, because it broadens analytical options
• I prefer free (freedom+beer) software for research; however, I rely on non-free, commercial software for part of my work because it happens to be the best option for specific analyses.

Disclaimer: my primary analysis language is R and I often use lme4, MCMCglmm and INLA (all free). However, many (if not most) of my analyses that use genetic information rely on ASReml (paid, not open source). I’ve used Mathematica, Matlab, Stata and SAS for specific applications with reasonably priced academic licenses.

## Teaching code, production code, benchmarks and new languages

I’m a bit obsessive with words. May be I should have used learning in the title, rather than teaching code. Or perhaps remembering code. You know? Code where one actually has very clear idea of what is going on; for example, let’s say that we are calculating the average of a bunch of n numbers, we can have a loop that will add up each of them and then divide the total by n. Of course we wouldn’t do that in R, but use a simple function: mean(x).

In a previous post I compared R and Julia code and one of the commenters (Andrés) rightly pointed out that the code was inefficient. It was possible to speed up the calculation many times (and he sent me the code to back it up), because we could reuse intermediate results, generate batches of random numbers, etc. However, if you have studied the genomic selection problem, the implementations in my post are a lot closer to the algorithm. It is easier to follow and to compare, but not too flash in the speed department; for the latter we’d move to production code, highly optimized but not very similar to the original explanation.

This reminded me of the controversial Julia benchmarks, which implemented a series of 7 toy problems in a number of languages, following the ‘teaching code’ approach. Forcing ‘teaching code’ makes the comparison simple, as different language implementations look similar to each other. However, one is also throwing away the very thing that makes languages different: they have been designed and optimized using different typical uses in mind. For example, execution time for the pisum benchmark can be reduced sixty times just by replacing the internal loop with sum(1/c(1:10000)^2). Making comparisons easily understandable (so the code looks very similar) is orthogonal to making them realistic.

Tony Boyles asked, tongue in cheek, ‘The Best Statistical Programming Language is …Javascript?’ Well, if you define best as fastest language running seven benchmarks that may bear some resemblance to what you’d like to do (despite not having any statistical libraries) maybe the answer is yes.

I have to admit that I’m a sucker for languages; I like to understand new ways of expressing problems and, some times, one is lucky and finds languages that even allow tackling new problems. At the same time, most of my tests never progress beyond the ‘ah, cool, but it isn’t really that interesting’. So, if you are going to design a new language for statistical analyses you may want to:

• Piggyback on another language. Case in point: R, which is far from an immaculate conception but an implementation of S, which gave it a start with both users and code. It may be that you extend a more general language (e.g. Incanter) rather than a domain specific one.
• However, one needs a clean syntax from the beginning (ah, Python); my theory is that this partly explains why Incanter got little traction. (((too-many-parentheses-are-annoying)))
• Related to the previous point, make extensibility to other languages very simple. R’s is a pain, while Julia’s seems to be much straightforward (judging by Douglas Bates’s examples).
• Indices start at 1, not 0. Come on! This is stats and maths, not computer science. It is easier for us, your audience, to count from 1.
• Programming structures are first class citizens, not half-assed constructs that complicate life. A clear counterexample are SAS’s macros and PROC IML, which are not conducive to people writing their own libraries/modules and sharing them with the community: they are poorly integrated with the rest of the SAS system.
• Rely since day one on creating a community; as I pointed out in a previous post one thing is having a cool base language but a different one is recreating R’s package ecosystem. Good luck recreating R’s ecosystem working on your own.
• However, you have to create a base language with sane basics included: access to both plain text and databases, easy summary functions (Xapply doesn’t cut it), glms and cool graphics (ggplot like) or people may not get hooked with the language, so they start contributing.

Two interesting resources discussing the adoption of R are this paper (PDF) by John Fox and this presentation by John Cook. Incidentally, John Fox is the author of my favorite book on regression and generalized linear models, no R code at all, just explanations and the math behind it all. John Cook writes The Endeavour, a very interesting blog with mathematical/programming bent.

## On R versus SAS

A short while ago there was a discussion on linkedin about the use of SAS versus R for the enterprise. I have thought a bit about the issue but, as I do not use Linkedin, I did not make any comments there.

Disclaimer: I did use SAS a lot between 1992 and 1997, mostly for genetic evaluation, heavily relying on BASE, STAT, IML and GRAPH. From that point on, I was a light SAS user (mostly STAT and IML) until 2009. The main reason I left SAS was that I started using ASReml in 1997 and, around two years ago asreml-R, the R package version of ASReml. Through my job I can access any statistical software; if the university does not have a license, I can buy an academic one without any issues.

I think it is important to make a distinction between enterprise use and huge datasets. Some companies have large datasets, but there probably are many companies that need to analyze large numbers of small to medium size datasets. If we accept this premise, there is room to use a diversity of statistical packages, including both SAS and R.

Another topic that often appears in the R vs. SAS discussion is cost. SAS licenses are not cheap, but for many large companies the cost of having expensive researchers with lower productivity while they learn another “free” system can be really high. Same issue applies if there are legacy programs: converting software to a new system can be expensive and time consuming. Of course this situation is changing: new graduates are being exposed much more to R than to SAS in many departments. We now use R in many courses and students may end up working in a small company that will be happy not to spend any money to pay for a SAS license.

• There is good integration between the programming language and the statistical functions. Both SAS macros and IML are poorly integrated with the data step and procs.
• R is highly conducive to exploratory data analysis; visualization functions (either the lattice or the ggplot 2 packages) produce high quality plots that really help developing ideas to build models.
• Statistics is not defined by the software. If someone develops a new methodology or algorithm chances are that there will be an R implementation almost immediately. If I want to test a new idea I can scramble to write some code that connects packages developed by other researchers.
• It is relatively easy to integrate R with other languages, for example Python, to glue a variety of systems.
• asreml-r!
• I can exchange ideas with a huge number of people, because slowly R is becoming the de facto standard for many disciplines that make use of statistics.

Of course R has many drawbacks when compared to SAS; for example:

• The default editor in the Windows version is pathetic, while the one in OS X is pasable (code folding and proper refreshing would be great additions).
• R syntax can be horribly inconsistent across packages, making the learning process more difficult.
• There are many, too many, ways of doing the same thing, which can be confusing, particularly for newbies. For example, summarizing data by combinations of factors could be done using aggregate, summarize (from Hmisc), functions of the apply family, doBy, etc. Compare this situation to proc means.

No, I did not mention technical support (which I find a non-issue), access to large data sets (it is possible to integrate R with databases and ongoing work to process data that can’t fit in memory) or documentation. Concerning the latter, it would be helpful to have better R documentation, but SAS would also benefit from better manuals. There has been a huge number of books using R published recently and the documentation gap is closing. R would benefit of having good canonical documentation, something that all users could see first as the default documentation. The documentation included with the system is, how to call it, Spartan, and sometimes plain useless and confusing. A gigantic link to a searchable version of the R users email list from the main R project page would be great.