The Schwarz Criterion

Understanding the Schwarz Criterion

The Schwarz Criterion, also known as the Schwarz Information Criterion (SIC) or the Bayesian Information Criterion (BIC), is a criterion for model selection among a finite set of models. It is widely used in the field of econometrics, statistics, and machine learning for the purpose of selecting an optimal model that best fits the data without overfitting.

The criterion is named after the statistician Gideon Schwarz, who proposed the measure in 1978 as an alternative to the Akaike Information Criterion (AIC). The BIC is based on Bayesian probability and information theory, and it provides a way to balance the complexity of a model against its goodness of fit to the data.

Formula and Calculation of the Schwarz Criterion

The formula for the Schwarz Criterion is given by:

BIC = ln(n)k - 2ln(L)


  • n is the number of data points in the sample,
  • k

    is the number of parameters estimated by the model,

  • L is the maximized value of the likelihood function of the model.

The BIC is particularly useful because it introduces a penalty term for the number of parameters in the model, which helps to prevent overfitting. As the number of parameters increases, the penalty becomes more severe, thus discouraging the selection of overly complex models. The model with the lowest BIC is generally preferred as it is considered to be the best balance between fit and complexity.

Applications of the Schwarz Criterion

The Schwarz Criterion is applied in various statistical model selection tasks where multiple competing models are present. It is used in:

It is also used in the context of Bayesian statistics to approximate the Bayes factor between models, which is a measure of evidence for one model over another.

Comparison with Other Criteria

The Schwarz Criterion is often compared with other model selection criteria, most notably the Akaike Information Criterion (AIC). While both criteria aim to select models that balance goodness of fit with model complexity, they differ in their penalty terms. The AIC has a less severe penalty for the number of parameters, which can lead to the selection of more complex models compared to BIC.

In practice, the choice between AIC and BIC may depend on the specific context and goals of the model selection process. BIC's stronger penalty for complexity makes it more suitable for selecting simpler models, which can be advantageous in situations where parsimony is valued or when sample sizes are large.

Limitations of the Schwarz Criterion

Despite its widespread use, the Schwarz Criterion is not without limitations. One of the main criticisms is that it relies on the assumption that the data are identically and independently distributed, which may not always be the case in practical applications. Additionally, the BIC can be sensitive to the sample size, which can influence the penalty term and thus the model selection.

Moreover, the BIC assumes that the true model is among the set of candidate models being compared, which may not be a valid assumption in all scenarios. This can lead to incorrect model selection if the true model is significantly different from the ones under consideration.


The Schwarz Criterion is a valuable tool for model selection that helps to strike a balance between model complexity and fit to the data. It is particularly useful in situations where overfitting is a concern and where a parsimonious model is desired. While it has its limitations, when used appropriately, the BIC can guide researchers and practitioners in selecting models that are both interpretable and have good predictive performance.

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