Monday, July 12, 2021

What is beta in statistical testing?

\(\beta\) is \(\alpha\) if there's an effect

In hypothesis testing, there are two kinds of errors:

  • Type I - we say there's an effect when there isn't. The threshold here is \(\alpha\).
  • Type II - we say there's no effect when there really is an effect. The threshold here is \(\beta\).
This blog post is all about explaining and calculating \(\beta\).

The null hypothesis

Let's say we do an A/B test to measure the effect of a change to a website. Our control branch is the A branch and the treatment branch is the B branch. We're going to measure the conversion rate \(C\) on both branches. Here are our null and alternative hypotheses:

  • \(H_0: C_B - C_A = 0\) there is no difference between the branches
  • \(H_1: C_B - C_A \neq 0\) there is a difference between the branches

Remember, we don't know if there really is an effect, we're using procedures to make our best guess about whether there is an effect or not, but we could be wrong. We can say there is an effect when there isn't (Type I error) or we can say there is no effect when there is (Type II error).

Mathematically, we're taking the mean of thousands of samples so the central limit theorem (CLT) applies and we expect the quantity \(C_B - C_A\) to be normally distributed. If there is no effect, then \(C_B - C_A = 0\), if there is an effect \(C_B - C_A \neq 0\).

\(\alpha\) in a picture

Let's assume there is no effect. We can plot out our expected probability distribution and define an acceptance region (blue, 95% of the distribution) and two rejection regions (red, 5% of the distribution). If our measured \(C_B - C_A\) result lands in the blue region, we will accept the null hypothesis and say there is no effect, If our result lands in the red region, we'll reject the null hypothesis and say there is an effect. The red region is defined by \(\alpha\).

One way of looking at the blue area is to think of it as a confidence interval around the mean \(x_0\):

\[\bar x_0 + z_\frac{\alpha}{2} s \; and \; \bar x_0 + z_{1-\frac{\alpha}{2}} s \]

In this equation, s is the standard error in our measurement. The probability of a measurement \(x\) lying in this range is:

\[0.95 = P \left [ \bar x_0 + z_\frac{\alpha}{2} s < x < \bar x_0 + z_{1-\frac{\alpha}{2}} s \right ] \]

If we transform our measurement \(x\) to the standard normal \(z\), and we're using a 95% acceptance region (boundaries given by \(z\) values of 1.96 and -1.96), then we have for the null hypothesis:

\[0.95 = P[-1.96 < z < 1.96]\]

\(\beta\) in a picture

Now let's assume there is an effect. How likely is it that we'll say there's no effect when there really is an effect? This is the threshold \(\beta\).

To draw this in pictures, I want to take a step back. We have two hypotheses:

  • \(H_0: C_B - C_A = 0\) there is no difference between the branches
  • \(H_1: C_B - C_A \neq 0\) there is a difference between the branches

We can draw a distribution for each of these hypotheses. Only one distribution will apply, but we don't know which one.



If the null hypothesis is true, the blue region is where our true negatives lie and the red region is where the false positives lie. The boundaries of the red/blue regions are set by \(\alpha\). The value of \(\alpha\) gives us the probability of a false positive.

If the alternate hypothesis is true, the true positives will be in the green region and the false negatives will be in the orange region. The boundary of the green/orange regions is set by \(\beta\). The value of \(\beta\) gives us the probability of a false negative.

Calculating \(\beta\)

Calculating \(\beta\) is calculating the orange area of the alternative hypothesis chart. The boundaries are set by \(\alpha\) from the null hypothesis. This is a bit twisty, so I'm going to say it again with more words to make it easier to understand.

\(\beta\) is about false negatives. A false negative occurs when there is an effect, but we say there isn't. When we say there isn't an effect, we're saying the null hypothesis is true. For us to say there isn't an effect, the measured result must lie in the blue region of the null hypothesis distribution.

To calculate \(\beta\), we need to know what fraction of the alternate hypothesis lies in the acceptance region of the null hypothesis distribution.

Let's take an example so I can show you the process step by step.

  1. Assuming the null hypothesis, set up the boundaries of the acceptance and rejection region. Assuming a 95% acceptance region and an estimated mean of x, this gives the acceptance region as:
    \[P \left [ \bar x_0 + z_\frac{\alpha}{2} s < x < \bar x_0 + z_{1-\frac{\alpha}{2}} s \right ] \] which is the mean and 95% confidence interval for the null hypothesis. Our measurement \(x\) must lie between these bounds.
  2. Now assume the alternate hypothesis is true. If the alternate hypothesis is true, then our mean is \(\bar x_1\).
  3. We're still using this equation from before, but this time, our distribution is the alternate hypothesis.
    \[P \left [ \bar x_0 + z_\frac{\alpha}{2} s < x < \bar x_0 + z_{1-\frac{\alpha}{2}} s \right ] ] \]
  4. Transforming to the standard normal distribution using the formula \(z = \frac{x - \bar x_1}{\sigma}\), we can write the probability \(\beta\) as:
    \[\beta = P \left [ \frac{\bar x_0 + z_\frac{\alpha}{2} s - \bar x_1}{s} < z < \frac{ \bar x_0 + z_{1-\frac{\alpha}{2}} s - \bar x_1}{s} \right ] \]

This time, let's put some numbers in. 

  • \(n = 200,000\) (100,000 per branch)
  • \(C_B = 0.062\)
  • \(C_A =  0.06\)
  • \(\bar x_0= 0\) - the null hypothesis
  • \(\bar x_1 = 0.002\) - the alternate hypothesis
  • \(s = 0.00107\)  - this comes from combining the standard errors of both branches, so \(s^2 = s_A^2 + s_B^2\), and I'm using the usual formula for the standard error of a proportion, for example \(s_A = \sqrt{\frac{C_A(1-C_A)}{n} }\)
Plugging them all in, this gives:
\[\beta = P[ -3.829 < z < 0.090]\]
which gives \(\beta = 0.536\)

This is too hard

This process is complex and involves lots of steps. In my view, it's too complex. It feels to me that there must be an easier way of constructing tests. Bayesian statistics holds out the hope for a simpler approach, but widespread adoption of Bayesian statistics is probably a generation or two away. We're stuck with an overly complex process using very difficult language.

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