Fair-balance paradox, star-tree paradox, and Bayesian phylogenetics

Mol Biol Evol. 2007 Aug;24(8):1639-55. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msm081. Epub 2007 May 7.


The star-tree paradox refers to the conjecture that the posterior probabilities for the three unrooted trees for four species (or the three rooted trees for three species if the molecular clock is assumed) do not approach 1/3 when the data are generated using the star tree and when the amount of data approaches infinity. It reflects the more general phenomenon of high and presumably spurious posterior probabilities for trees or clades produced by the Bayesian method of phylogenetic reconstruction, and it is perceived to be a manifestation of the deeper problem of the extreme sensitivity of Bayesian model selection to the prior on parameters. Analysis of the star-tree paradox has been hampered by the intractability of the integrals involved. In this article, I use Laplacian expansion to approximate the posterior probabilities for the three rooted trees for three species using binary characters evolving at a constant rate. The approximation enables calculation of posterior tree probabilities for arbitrarily large data sets. Both theoretical analysis of the analogous fair-coin and fair-balance problems and computer simulation for the tree problem confirmed the existence of the star-tree paradox. When the data size n --> infinity, the posterior tree probabilities do not converge to 1/3 each, but they vary among data sets according to a statistical distribution. This distribution is characterized. Two strategies for resolving the star-tree paradox are explored: (1) a nonzero prior probability for the degenerate star tree and (2) an increasingly informative prior forcing the internal branch length toward zero. Both appear to be effective in resolving the paradox, but the latter is simpler to implement. The posterior tree probabilities are found to be very sensitive to the prior.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Bayes Theorem*
  • Computational Biology
  • Computer Simulation
  • Databases, Protein
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Models, Statistical
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Phylogeny*
  • Probability