# Plug-in estimators of statistical functionals

Consider a sequence of independent and identically distributed random variables . The distribution function is unknown but belongs to a known set of distribution functions . In parametric estimation, may represent a family of distributions specified by a vector of parameters, such as in the case of the location-scale family. In nonparametric estimation, is much more broad and is subject to milder restrictions, such as the existence of moments or continuity. For example, we may define as the family of distributions for which the mean exists or all distributions defined on the real line .

As mentioned in my previous blog post comparing nonparametric and parametric estimation, a statistical functional is any real-valued function of the cumulative distribution function , denoted . Statistical functionals can be thought of as characteristics of , and include moments and quantiles as examples.

An infinite population may be considered as completely determined by its distribution function, and any numerical characteristic of an infinite population with distribution function that is used in statistics is a [statistical] functional of .

Wassily Hoeffding. “A Class of Statistics with Asymptotically Normal Distribution.” Ann. Math. Statist. 19 (3) 293 – 325, September, 1948.

This blog post aims to provide insight into estimators of statistical functionals based on a sample of independent and identically random variables, known as plug-in estimators or empirical functionals.

## Expectation with respect to CDF

Many statistical functionals are expressed as the expectation of a real-valued function with respect to . That is, for a single random variable , For example, the population mean can be expressed as and the population variance can be expressed as What does it mean to take the expectation of a function of a random variable with respect to a distribution function ? Formally, which takes the form of a Riemann-Stieltjes integral. We can re-express this integral so that it takes a more familiar form.

1. If is discrete, has a corresponding mass function such that 2. If is continuous, has a corresponding density function such that This is just the usual form of the expectation of a function of a random variable per the Law of the unconcious statistician. The extension to two or more independent random variables is straight-forward, ## Empirical cumulative distribution function

A natural estimator of is the empirical cumulative distribution function (ECDF), defined as where is an indicator function taking the value 1 if its argument is true and 0 otherwise. That is, the estimated probability that is the sample proportion of observations less than or equal to . Then, for a given value of , it is easy to show that is a consistent estimator of .

Let represent the number of ‘s less than or equal to . Then, is distributed according to a Binomial distribution with trials and success probability . That is, . The sample estimate of the success probability is then . The central limit theorem tells us that for a sample proportion , and thus, it follows that for fixed , Note that a stronger result is available for all simultaneously, The ECDF can be implemented in R from scratch using the following code.

set.seed(12345)

library(tidyverse)

# Generate n = 100 observations from N(5, 1)
n = 100
X = rnorm(n, mean = 5, sd = 1)

# Specify range of x's for ECDF
X_min = min(X) - 1
X_max = max(X) + 1

# Create a sequence of t's to evaluate ECDF
t_eval = seq(X_min, X_max, 0.01)

# Estimate ECDF from scratch
Fn <- c()
for (t in t_eval){

Ix <- ifelse(X <= t, 1, 0)    # I(Xi <= x)
Fx <- (1/n) * sum(Ix)         # Defn of Fn(x)
Fn <- append(Fn, Fx)          # Add result to Fn vector

}

# Plot ECDF
qplot(x = t_eval, y = Fn, geom = 'step') +
labs(x = 't', y = 'ECDF(t)', title = 'ECDF of random sample of size n = 100 from N(5, 1)') +
lims(x = c(2, 8)) +
theme_bw() Alternatively, the ECDF can be generated using R’s built-in ecdf function, which provides convenient methods such as plotting and quantiles.

Fn <- ecdf(X)
plot(Fn) quantile(Fn, 0.75)

##     75%
## 5.90039


## Empirical functionals, or plug-in estimators

Statistical functionals can be naturally estimated by an empirical functional which substitutes for such that . For this reason, empirical functionals are also commonly referred to as plug-in estimators. is a valid, discrete CDF which assigns mass to each of the observed . For a random variable , and, When takes the form of an expectation with respect to , replacing with yields, Since is a discrete distribution, suggests that is just the sample average of the transformed , As an example, the sample expectation and variance can be easily expressed as plug-in estimators: mu_hat = sum(1/n * X)
mu_hat

##  5.245197 sigma2_hat = sum(1/n * (X - sum(1/n * X))^2)
sigma2_hat

##  1.230199


Note that while is the standard, unbiased estimator of the population mean, is the biased estimator of the population variance featuring a denominator of .

Not all empirical functionals, or plug-in estimators, are unbiased! However, when the statistical functional takes a special form, known as an expectation functional, an unbiased estimator can always be constructed regardless of the form of . 