Simpson’s Paradox and Deep Learning Metrics with Weightwatcher

What is WeightWatcher ?

The WeightWatcher tool is an open-source python package that can be used to predict the test accuracy of a series similar of Deep Neural Network (DNN) — without peeking at the test data.

WeightWatcher is based on research done in collaboration with UC Berkeley on the foundations of Deep Learning. We built this tool to help you analyze and debug your Deep Neural Networks.

It is easy to install and run; the tool will analyze your model and return both summary statistics and detailed metrics for each layer:

The WeightWatcher github page lists various papers and online presentations given at UC Berkeley and Stanford, and various conferences like ICML, KDD, etc. There, and on this blog, you can find examples of how to use it.

This post describes how to select the metric for your models, and why.

Different Metrics for Different Models

You can use WeightWatcher to model a series of DNNs of either increasing size, or with different hyperparameters. But you need different metrics — \alpha vs. \hat{\alpha} — for different cases:

  • alpha \alpha\;\; : for different hyper-parameters settings (batch size, weight decay, …) on the same model
  • weighted alpha: \hat{\alpha}\;\; : for an architecture series like VGG11, VGG13, VGG16, VGG19

But why do need 2 different alpha metrics? To understand this, we need to understand

Spectral Norms and Deep Learning

Traditional machine learning theory suggests that the test performance of a Deep Neural Network is correlated with the average log Spectral Norm. That is, the test error should be bounded by the average Spectral Norm, so the smaller norm, the smaller the test error.

The Spectral Norm \Vert\mathbf{W}\Vert^{2}_{\infty} of an N\times M matrix \mathbf{W} is just the (square root of the ) maximum eigenvalue \lambda_{max} of its correlation matrix \mathbf{X}

\mathbf{X}:= \dfrac{1}{N}\mathbf{W}^{T}\mathbf{W},\;\;\; \mathbf{X}\mathbf{e}_{l}= \lambda_{l}\mathbf{e}_{l}

We denote the (squared) Spectal Norm as:

\Vert\mathbf{W}\Vert^{2}_{\infty} := \lambda^{max}

Note: in earlier papers we (and others) also use: \Vert\mathbf{W}\Vert^{2}_{2}

WeightWatcher computes the log Spectral Norm for each layer, and defines:

\langle\log_{10}\Vert\mathbf{W}\Vert^{2}_{\infty}\rangle := \dfrac{1}{N_L}\sum_{l}^{N_L}\log_{10}\lambda^{max}_{l}

which we compute by averaging over all N_{L} layer weight matrices.

We compute the eigenvalues, or the Empirical Spectral Density (ESD), of each layer \mathbf{X} by running SVD directly on the layer \mathbf{W} or, for Conv2D layers, some matrix slice (see the Appendix).

Spectral Norm Regularization

It has been suggested by Yoshida and Miyato that the Spectral Norm would make a good regularizer for DNNs. The basic idea is that the test data should look enough like the training data so that if we can say something about how the DNN performs on perturbed training data, that will also say something about the test performance.

Here is the text from the paper; let. me explain how to interpret this in practical terms.

We imagine the test data \mathbf{x}_{test} must look like the training data \mathbf{x}_{train} with some small perturbation \mathbf{\xi}. Let us write this as:


As we train a DNN, we run several epochs of BackProp, which amounts to multiplying \mathbf{x}_{train} by a weight matrix \mathbf{W} at each layer, apply an activation function, and repeat until we get a label \mathbf{y}_{train}


To get an estimate, or bound, on the test accuracy, we can then imagine applying the matrix multiply to the perturbed training point


So if we can say something about how the DNN should perform on a perturbed training point \mathbf{x}_{train}+\mathbf{\xi}, we can say something about the test output \mathbf{y}_{test}.

What can we say ?

When we apply an activation function f{x}, like a RELU, which acts pointwise on the data vector, and acts like an affine transformation. So the RELU+weight matrix multiply is a bounded linear operator (at least piecewise) and therefore it can be bounded by it’s Spectral Radius \sigma(\mathbf{W}).

So we say that we want to learn a DNN model such that, at each layer, the action of the layer matrix-vector multiply is bounded by the Spectral Norm of its layer weight matrix. This should, in theory, give good test performance. By applying a Spectral Norm regularizer, we think we can make a DNN that is more robust to small changes in it’s input. That is, we can make it perform better on random perturbations the of training data , and, therefore, presumably, better on the test data.

From Bounds to a Regularizer

When we develop a mathematical bound , our first instinct is to develop a numerical regularizer \Omega(\mathbf{W}, \mathbf{b}). That is, when solving our optimization problem–minimizing the DNN Energy function \mathcal{E}_{DNN}(\mathbf{X}, \mathbf{Y})–we want to prevent the solution from blowing up. Having a mathematically rigorous bound helps here since it seems to bound the BackProp optimization step on every iteration:

\underset{\mathbf{W}, \mathbf{b}}{\min}\;\mathcal{E}_{DNN}(\mathbf{X}, \mathbf{Y})+\Omega(\mathbf{W}, \mathbf{b})

Notice that since the regularizer \Omega(\mathbf{W}, \mathbf{b}) appears in the optimization problem, it must be differentiable (either directly, or using some trick).

A regularizer must also be easy to implement. For example, we could also bound the Jacobian \mathcal{\mathbf{J}}(\mathbf{W}), but this very expensive to compute, and it is difficult to apply even a norm bound of this (\Vert\mathcal{\mathbf{J}}\mathbf{W})\Vert^{2}_{F}), on every step of BackProp. It might also seem that the Spectral norm is hard to compute because one needs to run SVD, but there is a simple trick. One can approximate the maximum eigenvalue \lambda^{max} of \mathbf{X} using the Power Method, by running it for say steps, and then simply add this to the SGD update step,. There are many examples on github of this, and it has been applied, in particular, to GANs and has been shown to work very well in large scale studies.


Also, since this expression is linear in \mathbf{W}, we can also readily plug this into TensorFlow /Keras or PyTorch and use autograd to compute the derivatives. It is available as a Tensforflow Addon, and is part of the core pyTorch 1.7 package.

Spectral Norm Regularization has not been widely used (outside say GANs) because it only works well for very deep networks. See, however, this adaption for smaller DNNs called Mean Spectral Normalization.

From Worst-Case Bounds to Average Case Behavior

What do we want from a theory of learning ? With WeightWatcher, we have never sought. a rigorous bound. That’s not the goal of our theory. We do not seek a bound because this decribes the worst-case behavior; we seek to understand the average-case behavior (However, what we can do repair the Spectral Norm as a metric , as shown below.)

With the average-case, we hope to able to predict the generalization error of a DNN (and without peeking at the test data). And we mean this a very practical sense, applying to very large, production quality models, both in training and fine-tuning them.

So what’s the difference between having a bound and analyzing average-case behavior ?

  • With a mathematical bound, we can bound the error–for a single model. So this is alike a prediction, and , as shown above, we can use this to develop better regularizers.
  • WIth the average-case behavior, we want to predict trends across many different models. Of both different depths (since deeper models usually perform better) and with different hyperparameter settings (batch size, momentum, weight decay, etc.)

It’s not at all obvious that we can expect a mathematical bound to be correlated with trends in the test accuracy of real-world DNNs. It turns out, the Spectral Norm works pretty well–at least across pretrained DNNs of increasing depth.

Here is an example, showing how the Spectral Norm performs on the VGG series

Average Log Spectral Norm vs Top1 Test Accuracy for several VGG models
(VGG11, VGG13, VGG16, VGG19, with/out Batchnorm, trained on Imagenet-1K)

We see that the average log Spectral norm correlates quite well with the test accuracy of the DNN architecture series of the pretrained VGG models. This is remarkable, since we do not have access to the training or the test data (or other information).

We have used WeightWatcher to analyze hundreds of pretrained models, of increasing depths, and using different data sets. Generally speaking, the average log Spectral Norm correlates well with the test accuracies of many different DNN series and for different data sets.

But not always. And that’s the rub.

Simpson’s Paradox (or our Spectral surprise)

Oddly, while the average log Spectral Norm \langle\log_{10}\Vert\mathbf{W}\Vert^{2}_{\infty}\rangle is correlated with test error, when changing the depth of a DNN model, it turns out to be anti-correlated with test error when varying the optimization hyper-parameters. This is a classic example of Simpson’s paradox.

We have noted this, and it has also pointed by Bengio and co-workers. Indeed, an entire contest was recently set up to study this issue–the 2020 NeurIPS Predicting Generalization challenge.

Below we can see the paradox by looking at predictions for ~100 small, pre-trained VGG-like models, (provided by contest). We use WeightWatcher (version ww0.4) to compute the average log_spectral_norm, and compare to. the reported test accuracies for the contest task2_v1 set of baseline VVG-like models:

task1_v4: 96 models trained on CIFAR10: like VGG models

For more details, please see the contest website details, and/or our contest post-mortem Jupyter Book and paper on the contest (coming soon).

Notice that the 2xx models have the best test accuracies, and, correspondingly, as a group, the smallest avg logspectralnorm. Smaller error correlates with the smaller norm metric. Likewise, the 6xx models models have. the smallest Test Accuracies as. a group, and also, the largest avg logspectralnorm.

This is a classic example of Simpson’s Paradox.

However, also note that, for each model group (2xx, 10xx, 6xx, & 9xx), we can draw, roughly, a straight line that shows most of the test accuracies in that group are anti-correlated with the avg. log_spectral_norm \langle\log_{10}\Vert\mathbf{W}\Vert^{2}_{\infty}\rangle. Now the regression is not always great, and there are outliers, but we think the general trends hold well enough for this level of discussion (and we will drill into the details in our next paper).

Simpson’s Paradox

This is a classic example of Simpon’s Paradox.

Here, we see a large trend, across the similar models, trained on the same dataset, but with different, depths.

When looking closely at each model group, however, we see the reverse trend.

This makes the Spectral Norm difficult to use as a general purpose metric for predicting test accuracies.

WeightWatcher to the Rescue

Using WeightWatcher, however, we can repair the average log Spectral Norm metric by computing it as a weighted average–weighted by the WeightWatcher \alpha metric.

Here is a similar plot on the same task2_v1 data,, but this time reporting the WeightWatcher average power law metric \alpha. Notice that \alpha is well correlated within each model group, as expected when changing model hyperparameters. Moreover, the \alpha is not correlated with the Test Accuracy more broadly across different depths, nor is it correlated with the average log Spectral Norm (not shown).

WeightWatcher alpha tells us how correlated a single DNN model is. And we can use to correct the average log_spectral_norm by simply taking a weighted average (called alpha_weighted):


If we look closely, we can see more in more detail how the weighted alpha \hat{\alpha} corrects the average log_spectral_norm metric in the VGG architecture series. Below we use WeightWatcher to plot the different metrics vs. the Top 1 Test Accuracy for the many different pre-trained VGG models.

WeightWatcher average metrics vs. Top1 Test Accuracy for pretrained VGG models
(VGG11, VGG13, VGG16, VGG19, with/out BatchNorm, trained on Imagenet-1K)

Consider the plot on the far right, and, specifically, the pink (BN-VGG-16) and red dots (VGG-19), near test accuracy ~ 26. These are 2 models with both different depths (16 vs 19 layers) and different hyperparameter settings (BatchNorm or not). The two models have nearly the same accuracy, but a large variance between their average log_spectral_norm. Now consider the far left plot for average alpha \langle\alpha\rangle, which shows that and red has a smaller alpha than the pink . The VGG-19 model is more strongly correlated than BN_VGG-16. The average alpha for the red dot is ~3.5, whereas the pink dot ~ 3.85. When we combine these 2 metrics, on the middle plot (alpha_weighted), the 2 models now appear much closer together. So alpha_weighted metric corrects the average log_spectral_norm, reducing the variance between similar models, and making \hat{\alpha} more suitable to treating models of different depth and different hyperparameter settings.


The open source WeightWatcher tool provides metrics for Deep Neural Networks that allow the user to predict (trends in) the test accuracies of Deep Neural Networks without needing the test data. The different (power law) metrics, \langle\alpha\rangle and \hat{\alpha} apply to models with different hyperparameter settings, and different depths, resp. Here, we explain why.

The \langle\alpha\rangle average alpha metric describes the amount of correlation contained in the DNN weight matrices. Smaller \langle\alpha\rangle correlates with better test accuracy for a single model with different hyperparemeter settings. It is a unique metric, developed from the theory on strongly correlated systems from theoretical chemistry and physics

The \langle\alpha\rangle average weighted alpha metric is suited for treating a series of models with different depths, like the VGG series: VGG11, VGG13, VGG16, VGG19. It is a weighted average of the log Spectral Norm.

To explain why \langle\alpha\rangle works, we have reviewed the theory and application of Spectral Norm Regularization, and the use of the average log Spectral Norm \langle\Vert\mathbf{W}\Vert^{2}_{\infty}\rangle as a metric for predicting DNN test accuracies.

While theory suggests that \langle\log_{10}\Vert\mathbf{W}\Vert^{2}_{\infty}\rangle might be able to predict the generalization performance of different pre-trained DNNs, in practice, it is correlated with test error for models with different depths, and anti-correlated for models trained with different hyperparameters. This is a classic example of Simpson’s Paradox.

We show that we can fix-up the average log_spectral_norm (as provided in WeightWatcher) by using a weighted average, weighted by the WeightWatcher power-law layer alpha \alpha metric. And this is exactly the WeightWatcher metric alpha_weighted:


Try it yourself on your own DNN models.

pip install weightwatcher

And let me know how it goes.


Spectral Density of 2D Convolutional Layers

We can test this theory numerically using WeightWatcher. Notice, however, that while it is obvious how to define \lambda^{max} for Dense matrix, there is some ambiguity doing this for a 2DConvolution and to make this work as a useful metric.

WeightWatcher has 2 methods for computing the SVD of a Conv2D layer, depending on the version. For a k\times k\times N\times M Conv2D layer, the options are

  • new version ww.0.4: extract k\times k matrix slices of dimension N\times M, and combine these to define the final \mathbf{W}^{Conv2D} matrix, and run SVD on this. This gives 1 ESD per Conv2D layer.
  • old version ww2x: extract k\times k matricies \mathbf{W}^{Conv2D}_{i} of dimension N\times M each, and run SVD on each \mathbf{W}^{Conv2D}_{i}. This gives k\times k ESDs per Conv2D layer, and the layer metrics are then averaged over all of these slices.
  • future version (maybe): Run SVD on the linear operator that defines the Conv2D transform. This requires running SVD on the discrete FFT on each of the Conv2D input-output channels, and then combining the resulting eigenvalues into 1 very large ESD. This is quite slow and the numerical results were not as good in early experiments.

All three methods give slightly different layer Spectral Norms, with ww0.4 being the best estimator so far. The ww2x=True option is included for back compatibility with earlier papers.

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