Tree ensembles such as Random Forests have achieved impressive empirical success across a wide variety of applications. To understand how these models make predictions, people routinely turn to feature importance measures calculated from tree ensembles. It has long been known that Mean Decrease Impurity (MDI), one of the most widely used measures of feature importance, incorrectly assigns high importance to noisy features, leading to systematic bias in feature selection. In this paper, we address the feature selection bias of MDI from both theoretical and methodological perspectives. Based on the original definition of MDI by Breiman et al.  for a single tree, we derive a tight non-asymptotic bound on the expected bias of MDI importance of noisy features, showing that deep trees have higher (expected) feature selection bias than shallow ones. However, it is not clear how to reduce the bias of MDI using its existing analytical expression. We derive a new analytical expression for MDI, and based on this new expression, we are able to propose a debiased MDI feature importance measure using out-of-bag samples, called MDI-oob. For both the simulated data and a genomic ChIP dataset, MDI-oob achieves state-of-the-art performance in feature selection from Random Forests for both deep and shallow trees.
Electronic health records are an increasingly important resource for understanding the interactions between patient health, environment, and clinical decisions. In this paper we report an empirical study of predictive modeling of several patient outcomes using three state-of-the-art machine learning methods. Our primary goal is to validate the models by interpreting the importance of predictors in the final models. Central to interpretation is the use of feature importance scores, which vary depending on the underlying methodology. In order to assess feature importance, we compared univariate statistical tests, information-theoretic measures, permutation testing, and normalized coefficients from multivariate logistic regression models. In general we found poor correlation between methods in their assessment of feature importance, even when their performance is comparable and relatively good. However, permutation tests applied to random forest and gradient boosting models showed the most agreement, and the importance scores matched the clinical interpretation most frequently.
This paper advocates against permute-and-predict (PaP) methods for interpreting black box functions. Methods such as the variable importance measures proposed for random forests, partial dependence plots, and individual conditional expectation plots remain popular because of their ability to provide model-agnostic measures that depend only on the pre-trained model output. However, numerous studies have found that these tools can produce diagnostics that are highly misleading, particularly when there is strong dependence among features. Rather than simply add to this growing literature by further demonstrating such issues, here we seek to provide an explanation for the observed behavior. In particular, we argue that breaking dependencies between features in hold-out data places undue emphasis on sparse regions of the feature space by forcing the original model to extrapolate to regions where there is little to no data. We explore these effects through various settings where a ground-truth is understood and find support for previous claims in the literature that PaP metrics tend to over-emphasize correlated features both in variable importance and partial dependence plots, even though applying permutation methods to the ground-truth models do not. As an alternative, we recommend more direct approaches that have proven successful in other settings: explicitly removing features, conditional permutations, or model distillation methods.
Complex problems may require sophisticated, non-linear learning methods such as kernel machines or deep neural networks to achieve state of the art prediction accuracies. However, high prediction accuracies are not the only objective to consider when solving problems using machine learning. Instead, particular scientific applications require some explanation of the learned prediction function. Unfortunately, most methods do not come with out of the box straight forward interpretation. Even linear prediction functions are not straight forward to explain if features exhibit complex correlation structure. In this paper, we propose the Measure of Feature Importance (MFI). MFI is general and can be applied to any arbitrary learning machine (including kernel machines and deep learning). MFI is intrinsically non-linear and can detect features that by itself are inconspicuous and only impact the prediction function through their interaction with other features. Lastly, MFI can be used for both --- model-based feature importance and instance-based feature importance (i.e, measuring the importance of a feature for a particular data point).
Most accurate predictions are typically obtained by learning machines with complex feature spaces (as e.g. induced by kernels). Unfortunately, such decision rules are hardly accessible to humans and cannot easily be used to gain insights about the application domain. Therefore, one often resorts to linear models in combination with variable selection, thereby sacrificing some predictive power for presumptive interpretability. Here, we introduce the Feature Importance Ranking Measure (FIRM), which by retrospective analysis of arbitrary learning machines allows to achieve both excellent predictive performance and superior interpretation. In contrast to standard raw feature weighting, FIRM takes the underlying correlation structure of the features into account. Thereby, it is able to discover the most relevant features, even if their appearance in the training data is entirely prevented by noise. The desirable properties of FIRM are investigated analytically and illustrated in simulations.