Graduate Descent

The optimal proposal distribution is not p

statistics sampling importance-sampling

The following is a quick rant about importance sampling (see that post for notation).

I've heard the following incorrect statement one too many times,

We chose \(q \approx p\) because \(q=p\) is the "optimal" proposal distribution.

While it is certainly a good idea to pick \(q\) to be as similar as possible to \(p\), it is by no means optimal because it is oblivious to \(f\)!

With importance sampling, it is possible to achieve a variance reduction over Monte Carlo estimation. The optimal proposal distribution, assuming \(f(x) \ge 0\) for all \(x\), is \(q(x) \propto p(x) f(x).\) This choice of \(q\) gives us a zero variance estimate with a single sample!

Of course, this is an unreasonable distribution to use because the normalizing constant is the thing you are trying to estimate, but it is proof that better proposal distributions exist.

The key to doing better than \(q=p\) is to take \(f\) into account. Look up "importance sampling for variance reduction" to learn more.