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The Shift and Balance Fallacies

Two related fallacies I see in machine learning practice are the shift and balance fallacies (for an earlier simple fallacy, please see here). They involve thinking logistic regression has a bit simpler structure that it actually does, and also thinking logistic regression is a bit less powerful than it actually is.

The fallacies are somewhat opposite: the first fallacy is shifting or re-weighting data doesn’t change much, and the second is that re-balancing is a necessary pre-processing step. As the two ideas seem to contradict each other it would be odd if they were both true. In fact we are closer to both being false.

The shift fallacy

The shift fallacy is as follows. We fit two models m and m_shift with data-weights one (the all ones vector) and a * (one - y) + b * y (y being the dependent variable). We are re-sampling according to outcome, a (not always advisable) technique popular with some for un-balanced classification problems (note: we think this technique is popular due to the common error of using classification rules for classification problems) . Then the fallacy is to (falsely) believed the two models differ only in the intercept term.

This is easy to disprove in R.

x1 x2 y
0 0 0
0 0 0
0 1 1
1 0 0
1 0 0
1 0 1
1 1 0

First we fit the model with each data-row having the same weight.

## (Intercept)          x1          x2 
##  -1.2055937  -0.3129307   1.3620590

Now we build a balanced weighting. We are up-sampling both classes so we don’t have any fractional weights (fractional weights are fine, but they trigger a warning in glm()).

## [1] 2 2 5 2 2 5 2
## [1] 0.5

Now we fit the model for the balanced data situation.

## (Intercept)          x1          x2 
##  -0.5512784   0.1168985   1.4347723

Notice that all of the coefficients changed, not just the intercept term. And we have thus demonstrated the shift fallacy.

The balance fallacy

An additional point is: the simple model without re-weighting is the better model on this training data. There appears to be an industry belief that to work with unbalanced classes one must re-balance the data. In fact moving to “balanced data” doesn’t magically improve the model quality, what it does is helps hide some of the bad consequences of using classification rules instead of probability models (please see here for some discussion).

For instance our original model has the following statistical deviance (lower is better):

## [1] 7.745254

And our balanced model has a worse deviance.

## [1] 9.004022

Part of this issue is that the balanced model is scaled wrong. It’s average prediction is, by design, inflated.

## [1] 0.4784371

Whereas, the original model average to the same as the average of the truth values (a property of logistic regression).

## [1] 0.2857143
## [1] 0.2857143

So let’s adjust the balanced predictions back to the correct expected value (essentially Platt scaling).

## [1] 0.2857143

We now have a prediction with the correct expected value. However, notice this deviance is still larger than the simple un-weighted original model.

## [1] 7.803104

Our opinion is: re-weighting or re-sampling data for a logistic regression is pointless. The fitting procedure deals with un-balanced data quite well, and doesn’t need any attempt at help. We think this sort of re-weighting and re-sampling introduces complexity, the possibility of data-leaks with up-sampling, and a loss of statistical efficiency with down-sampling. Likely the re-sampling fallacy is driven by a need to move model scores to near 0.5 when using 0.5 as a default classification rule threshold (which we argue against in “Don’t Use Classification Rules for Classification Problems”). This is a problem that is more easily avoided by insisting on a probability model over a classification rule.


Some tools, such as logistic regression, work best on training data that accurately represents the distributions facts of problem, and do not require artificially balanced training data. Also, re-balancing training data is a bit more involved than one might think, as we see more than just the intercept term changes when we re-balance data.

Take logistic regression as the entry level probability model for classification problems. If it doesn’t need data re-balancing then other any tool claiming to be universally better than it should also not need artificial re-balancing (though if they are internally using classification rule metrics, some hyper-parameters or internal procedures may need to be adjusted).

Prevalence re-balancing is working around mere operational issues: such as using classification rules (instead of probability models), using sub-optimal metrics (such as accuracy). However, there operational issues are better directly corrected than worked around. A lot of the complexity we see in modern machine learning pipelines is patches patching unwanted effects of previous patches.

(The source for this article can be found here, and a rendering of it here.)

Categories: Opinion Pragmatic Data Science Pragmatic Machine Learning Statistics Tutorials

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Data Scientist and trainer at Win Vector LLC. One of the authors of Practical Data Science with R.

2 replies

  1. Hi,
    Thanks for this very interesting article.

    Does this result holds in more extreme unbalanced scenarios?


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