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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Mar 4;111(9):3354-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1309933111. Epub 2014 Feb 18.

Equitability, mutual information, and the maximal information coefficient.

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Simons Center for Quantitative Biology, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor, NY 11724.


How should one quantify the strength of association between two random variables without bias for relationships of a specific form? Despite its conceptual simplicity, this notion of statistical "equitability" has yet to receive a definitive mathematical formalization. Here we argue that equitability is properly formalized by a self-consistency condition closely related to Data Processing Inequality. Mutual information, a fundamental quantity in information theory, is shown to satisfy this equitability criterion. These findings are at odds with the recent work of Reshef et al. [Reshef DN, et al. (2011) Science 334(6062):1518-1524], which proposed an alternative definition of equitability and introduced a new statistic, the "maximal information coefficient" (MIC), said to satisfy equitability in contradistinction to mutual information. These conclusions, however, were supported only with limited simulation evidence, not with mathematical arguments. Upon revisiting these claims, we prove that the mathematical definition of equitability proposed by Reshef et al. cannot be satisfied by any (nontrivial) dependence measure. We also identify artifacts in the reported simulation evidence. When these artifacts are removed, estimates of mutual information are found to be more equitable than estimates of MIC. Mutual information is also observed to have consistently higher statistical power than MIC. We conclude that estimating mutual information provides a natural (and often practical) way to equitably quantify statistical associations in large datasets.

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