Abstract: Recent years have witnessed the success of adaptive (or unified) approaches in estimating symmetric properties of discrete distributions, where the learner first obtains a distribution estimator independent of the target property, and then plugs the estimator into the target property as the final estimator. Several such approaches have been proposed and proved to be adaptively optimal, i.e. they achieve the optimal sample complexity for a large class of properties within a low accuracy, especially for a large estimation error $\varepsilon\gg n^{-1/3}$ where $n$ is the sample size. In this paper, we characterize the high accuracy limitation, or the penalty for adaptation, for general adaptive approaches. Specifically, we obtain the first known adaptation lower bound that under a mild condition, any adaptive approach cannot achieve the optimal sample complexity for every $1$-Lipschitz property within accuracy $\varepsilon \ll n^{-1/3}$. In particular, this result disproves a conjecture in [Acharya et al. 2017] that the profile maximum likelihood (PML) plug-in approach is optimal in property estimation for all ranges of $\varepsilon$, and confirms a conjecture in [Han and Shiragur 2020] that their competitive analysis of the PML is tight.

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