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Syst Biol. 2002 Jun;51(3):509-23.

Model misspecification and probabilistic tests of topology: evidence from empirical data sets.

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  • 1Department of Biology, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA, and Landcare Research, Mt. Albert, Auckland, New Zealand.


Probabilistic tests of topology offer a powerful means of evaluating competing phylogenetic hypotheses. The performance of the nonparametric Shimodaira-Hasegawa (SH) test, the parametric Swofford-Olsen-Waddell-Hillis (SOWH) test, and Bayesian posterior probabilities were explored for five data sets for which all the phylogenetic relationships are known with a very high degree of certainty. These results are consistent with previous simulation studies that have indicated a tendency for the SOWH test to be prone to generating Type 1 errors because of model misspecification coupled with branch length heterogeneity. These results also suggest that the SOWH test may accord overconfidence in the true topology when the null hypothesis is in fact correct. In contrast, the SH test was observed to be much more conservative, even under high substitution rates and branch length heterogeneity. For some of those data sets where the SOWH test proved misleading, the Bayesian posterior probabilities were also misleading. The results of all tests were strongly influenced by the exact substitution model assumptions. Simple models, especially those that assume rate homogeneity among sites, had a higher Type 1 error rate and were more likely to generate misleading posterior probabilities. For some of these data sets, the commonly used substitution models appear to be inadequate for estimating appropriate levels of uncertainty with the SOWH test and Bayesian methods. Reasons for the differences in statistical power between the two maximum likelihood tests are discussed and are contrasted with the Bayesian approach.

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