MATH 2441

Probability and Statistics for Biological Sciences


Measures of Variability


The Range

The Mean Deviation

The Variance and Standard Deviation

The Interquartile Range

The Coefficient of Variation



Measures of central tendency are designed to distinguish between two similar looking distributions of values which are "centered" at different locations along the horizontal axis. In the figure on the left just below, the two distributions of values have what appear to be identical or nearly identical shapes, but the location around which their values seem most tightly clustered are different. The data sets from which these two distribution graphs were created would give different means, medians, and modes.

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On the other hand, the two data sets giving rise to the two distributions shown in the figure to the right above will give the same values for any of those three measures of central tendency, yet they are clearly not identical distributions of data. The peak, center, region of highest frequency, is around the value 4 for both, but they differ in how spread out (or how variable, or how dispersed) the data values are.

These schematic examples suggest that a second numerical summary that might be a useful and distinctive summary characteristic of data distributions is some measure of variability, or dispersion. We will consider a few of the possible ways of quantifying the variability of data.


The Range

The simplest way to measure the spread of values in a set of data is to calculate the range:

            sample range = largest value - smallest value                                  (VAR-1)

This has the advantage of being quite simple to do (though not necessarily very easy -- try scanning a list of 50,000 numbers by eye to find the largest and smallest values present). However, it suffers from the major disadvantage that its value depends on the two most atypical numbers in the whole set of data. Not only is the value of the range computed from just two observations, with all the other observations there just to tell you which two to use in your calculation, but it is calculated from the two most unusual and unpredictable values in the whole set of observations.

The range fails as a useful statistic in one other way. Remember that our goal in calculating numerical summaries from sample data is to be able use them to say something about the population from which the sample was selected. The question is: what population property might the sample range tell us about? For the sample range to be a good estimate of the population range, it would have to happen that the sample fortuitously contains both the smallest and the largest values occurring in the population. If the size of the sample is small compared to the size of the population, then this is extremely unlikely.

Under some circumstances, the sample range can be used to get a rough estimate of the most commonly used measure of dispersion, the standard deviation. See the document "Rough Cuts".



The Mean Deviation

In sets of data with very little variability or spread, the individual data values will all tend to be very similar to the arithmetic mean. This suggests that if we want to find a single number reflecting the spread or variability of the data which takes into account all observations, perhaps it would be useful to consider something based on the set of deviations from the mean: , , , …, . If most of the data values, x1, x2, x3, …, xn, are near in value to the mean, , then most of these deviations will be small values. Instead, if there is quite a bit of variability in the data, at least some of these deviations will be quite large values.

One might guess that simply finding the arithmetic mean of these deviations would be a good start. Unfortunately, this doesn't work. To see why, note the following.


that is, add up all n deviations, and divide by n. Now, examine the numerator more closely. If the brackets are removed, we can rearrange the terms to give the sum of the data values x1 + x2 + x3 + … + xn, and the sum of with itself n times, giving a total of n. Thus, the right-hand side above can be rewritten as


Thus, the average deviation computed in this way will always give the answer zero, and so as a measure of something to distinguish between narrow and broad distributions, it is totally useless. Note that we have obtained with result without considering any specific data values -- it is a property of the way this average deviation is defined that its value is automatically zero. In fact, you could say that the mean value, , is the value which makes the average deviation zero. What's really happening here is that the mean value has the property that every unit of deviation to its right is balanced by an equivalent deviation to its left, so that when you sum over all deviations, they exactly cancel out. Deviations of data values to the left of the mean will be negative numbers, deviations of data values to the right of the mean will be positive values, and the positive and negative values exactly cancel out.

The mean deviation was a good idea in that it took into account the values of all of the observations, but it failed to be useful because of exact cancellation between positive and negative deviations. Some people have suggested overcoming this difficulty by defining the mean absolute deviation -- take the absolute value of each deviation averaging. This would prevent the cancellation of positive and negative values in the averaging process, because now the sum involves only positive values.


Although this is used sometimes, the absolute value operation has some nasty mathematical properties (the graph of the absolute value function has a kink at the origin) which limits its theoretical usefulness compared to the next alternative we describe.


The Variance and Standard Deviation

There is another way to get a sum of strictly non-negative values based on deviations from the mean: square the deviations before summing. This gives the so-called variance, which leads to the most commonly used measure of variability in statistics. Since this quantity is going to work for us, we need to take care now to distinguish between sample variance, s2, and population variance, &sigma 2. The notation is conventional, and will make sense shortly. Here, &sigma is the lower case Greek character "sigma" or "s", written like an "o" with a short horizontal tail going rightwards from the top.

The defining formulas for these two quantities are:

         and                                                   (VAR-3)

Here, lower case n is the size of the sample, and upper case N is the size of the population. These two formulas are similar in some respects: the numerator is the sum of the squares of the deviations from the respective means. In calculating the sample variance, we sum the squares of the deviations of the data in the sample from the sample mean. In computing the population variance, we would sum the squares of the deviations of the values in the population from the population mean. To get an average of the deviations, we should divide by the number of terms in the sum, as done in the formula for &sigma 2.

The explanation why the numerator in the formula for s2 is n-1 instead of n is a bit subtle. One reason is that we would like to be able to prove that as the sample size n increases until eventually the sample becomes identical to the original population, the formula for s2 should smoothly transition into the formula for &sigma 2. This will only happen if we start with an n-1 in the denominator of the formula for s2. Another reason is that since has been calculated from the xk's in the sample, we really have only n-1 independent pieces of information left. (If I give you the value of all but one observation plus the mean of all observations, you can easily work out what that unknown observation must have been -- hence once is known, one of the n observations is redundant.) The value, n - 1, of the denominator of s2 is called the degrees of freedom in this context.

Look closely at the two formulas, (VAR-3). If the data values tend to be close to the mean, then the deviations from the mean will be a set of small numbers. Squaring them will give a set of small numbers, and so the sum in the denominator will be a small number. Thus, for tightly clustered sets of data, s2 is expected to be a relatively small value. On the other hand, if the data values are widely spread out (or at least if a few of them are), then some of the deviations will be large numbers and their squares will be even larger numbers, leading to a relatively large value for the numerator and hence for s2. Hence small values of s2 indicate tightly clustered sets of data, whereas large values of s2 indicate more spread in the distribution of values.

The formulas (VAR-3) make it easy to see what features of the data are reflected by s2 and &sigma 2, but they are rather awkward formulas to use for actually calculating these quantities. We can rearrange the numerators algebraically into the somewhat more congenial form:




The pattern of computations in the numerators of the first form in each of these formulas arises so commonly in statistical calculations that it is often denoted by the symbol SS (we'll use the subscript labels 'sample' and 'pop' here to distinguish between the SS for the sample data and the SS for the population values):

                     and                               (VAR-5)


                     and                                                                       (VAR-6)

(Although we've given formulas for &sigma 2 throughout here, you will probably never calculate &sigma 2 directly, but will use the value of s2 for data from a sample as an estimate of the required value of &sigma 2.)

Don't jump to the conclusion that the formula (VAR-5,6) for s2 is hopelessly complicated. To compute SSsample, you just need the sum of the squares of the data values (the first term), and the sum of the data values themselves (the second term). Even the simplest hand-held calculators with statistical functions will automate the process of computing these sums for you. Note the distinction between the two terms in the formula for SS. To compute the value of the first term you must square the values first, and then sum those squares. In the second term, you first sum the values, and then square the sum. These are not the same operations.

Before doing an example calculation, we define two more terms. The standard deviation is simply the square root of the corresponding variance. Thus




So, to compute the standard deviation, first compute the variance, and then take the square root. Obviously the standard deviation reflects the same features of the data as does the variance. Large variances will have comparatively large square roots, whereas small variances will have comparatively small square roots. Thus a comparatively large value for the standard deviation is an indication of considerable variability in the data, whereas a comparatively smaller value for the standard deviation is an indication of less variability in the data.


Example: Biotin

To illustrate the use of the formulas, consider the 'BiotinDry' set of data:


58.70     78.00      80.90     88.40     96.10

97.40    104.80      78.20     91.40 wpe26.gif (1202 bytes)

consisting of a sample of n = 9 values. To compute s2, start by computing


                                            = 68063.27



Now, put it all together:


rounded to three decimal places. (Since the data values have units of micrograms/100 g peanuts, the units of s2 will be the square of this.) Then,


If you applied the same procedure to the BiotinOil data, you would get s2 &cong 9.667, and so s &cong 3.109, indicating that the values in this second set of data are much more tightly clustered about the mean than in the BiotinDry data.


In practice, you should try to avoid having to calculate s2 in as detailed a fashion as the above example illustrates, especially for large sets of data. Using the statistical facilities on your hand-held calculator can automate the process a bit. Be careful to distinguish between the function keys which calculate s2 or s and those which calculate &sigma 2 or &sigma . In Excel, the function STDEV() can be used to calculate s, and the functions SUMSQ() and SUM() can be used to calculate and , respectively.

As measures of dispersion, the variance and standard deviation have one major advantage: they arise automatically in the theory underlying the sampling process, and so will play an important role in the methods of statistical inference that will occupy most of the time in this course. s2 is an efficient and unbiased estimator of &sigma 2 (though the same is not quite true of the relationship between s and &sigma ). Their one defect is shared with the arithmetic mean: the value of s2 and s is rather sensitive to the presence of unusual or atypical observations.



The Interquartile Range

The interquartile range is a measure of dispersion based on the calculation of percentiles for the data. Refer to the document on "Measures of Relative Standing" for further details. The main value of the interquartile range is that it provides a measure of dispersion which is insensitive to the presence of a small number of unusual or atypical observations. In some respects, you could consider the interquartile range to play a similar role with respect to the median as the standard deviation does with respect to the mean.



The Coefficient of Variation

The so-called coefficient of variation, is defined as the ratio


expressed either as a fraction or in percentage form. You can view it as a measure of relative dispersion or relative variability. Recall that both s and have the same units of measurement as the original data. If the units of measurement are changed, the values of these quantities will change as well. Their ratio, CV, is dimensionless, indicating how great the variability of the data is in relation to the value of the mean. CV's only make sense for data measured relative to a ratio scale. However, in those instances it reflects how significant variation between values is relative to their actual typical value.

For instance, if we collected a sample of 50 apples, and found that their mean weight was 300 g, a standard deviation of 1 g would indicate a very uniform sample of apples, weightwise. (See the document "Rough Cuts" -- the standard deviation of 1 g would indicate that almost all of the apples would have weights between 297 g and 303 g.) On the other hand, if we collected a sample of 50 blueberries and found that their mean weight was 1 g, a standard deviation of 1 g would indicate a quite a non-uniform set of blueberries, with some being probably four - six times as large as others. In the first case, the very uniform set of apples would have a CV of 1/300 &cong 0.003, and in the second case, the very diverse set of blueberries would have a CV of 1/1 = 1 which is 300 times as big as the CV for the apples.



This material is available in Microsoft WORD format here.

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Copyright 1998 [David W. Sabo]. All rights reserved.
Revised: February 4, 2003.