What’s a good imputation to predict with missing values?

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 34 pre-proceedings (NeurIPS 2021)

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Authors

Marine Le Morvan, Julie Josse, Erwan Scornet, Gael Varoquaux

Abstract

How to learn a good predictor on data with missing values? Most efforts focus on first imputing as well as possible and second learning on the completed data to predict the outcome. Yet, this widespread practice has no theoretical grounding. Here we show that for almost all imputation functions, an impute-then-regress procedure with a powerful learner is Bayes optimal. This result holds for all missing-values mechanisms, in contrast with the classic statistical results that require missing-at-random settings to use imputation in probabilistic modeling. Moreover, it implies that perfect conditional imputation is not needed for good prediction asymptotically. In fact, we show that on perfectly imputed data the best regression function will generally be discontinuous, which makes it hard to learn. Crafting instead the imputation so as to leave the regression function unchanged simply shifts the problem to learning discontinuous imputations. Rather, we suggest that it is easier to learn imputation and regression jointly. We propose such a procedure, adapting NeuMiss, a neural network capturing the conditional links across observed and unobserved variables whatever the missing-value pattern. Our experiments confirm that joint imputation and regression through NeuMiss is better than various two step procedures in a finite-sample regime.