“Which distribution describes my data?” Variations on that question pop up regularly on various online forums. Sometimes the person asking the question is looking for a goodness of fit test but doesn’t know the jargon “goodness of fit.” But more often they have something else in mind. They’re thinking of some list of familiar, named distribution families — normal, gamma, Poisson, etc. — and want to know which distribution from this list best fits their data. So the real question is something like the following:
Which distribution from the well-known families of probability distributions fits my data best?
Statistics classes can give the impression that there is a short list of probability distribution families, say the list in the index of text book for that class, and that something from one of those families will always fit any data set. This impression starts to seem absurd when stated explicitly. It raises two questions.
- What exactly is the list of well-known distributions?
- Why should a distribution from this list fit your data?
As for the first question, there is some consensus as to what the well-known distributions are. The distribution families in this diagram would make a good start. But the question of which distributions are “well known” is a sociological question, not a mathematical one. There’s nothing intrinsic to a distribution that makes it well-known. For example, most statisticians would consider the Kumaraswamy distribution obscure and the beta distribution well-known, even though the two are analytically similar.
You could argue that the canonical set of distributions is somewhat natural by a chain of relations. The normal distribution is certainly natural due to the central limit theorem. The chi-squared distribution is natural because the square of a normal random variable has a chi-squared distribution. The F distribution is related to the ratio of chi-squared variables, so perhaps it ought to be included. And so on and so forth. But each link in the chain is a little weaker than the previous. Also, why this chain of relationships and not some other?
Alternatively, you could argue that the distributions that made the canon are there because they have been found useful in practice. And so they have. But had people been interested in different problems, a somewhat different set of distributions would have been found useful.
Now on to the second question: Why should a famous distribution fit a particular data set?
Suppose a police artist asked a witness which U. S. president a criminal most closely resembled. The witness might respond
Well, she didn’t look much like any of them, but if I have to pick one, I’d pick John Adams.
The U. S. presidents form a convenient set of faces. You can find posters of their faces in many classrooms. The U. S. presidents are historically significant, but a police artist would do better to pick a different set of faces as a first pass in making a sketch.
I’m not saying it is unreasonable to want to fit a famous distribution to your data. Given two distributions that fit the data equally well, go with the more famous distribution. This is a sort of celebrity version of Occam’s razor. It’s convenient to use distributions that other people recognize. Famous distributions often have nice mathematical properties and widely available software implementations. But the list of famous distributions can form a Procrustean bed that we force our data to fit.
The extreme of Procrustean statistics is a list of well-known distributions with only one item: the normal distribution. Researchers often apply a normal distribution where it doesn’t fit at all. More dangerously, experienced statisticians can assume a normal distribution when the lack of fit isn’t obvious. If you implicitly assume a normal distribution, then any data point that doesn’t fit the distribution is an outlier. Throw out the outliers and the normal distribution fits well! Nassim Taleb calls the normal distribution the “Great Intellectual Fraud” in his book The Black Swan because people so often assume the distribution fits when it does not.
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