Performance Perspectives Blog

I can’t hear you because it’s too noisy

by | Mar 17, 2011

Odd title for a blog post, right? Well, it’s my silly way to introduce a term which is often bantered about but not often discussed: “noise.” No, I’m not talking about the sounds that come through the hotel room while you’re trying to sleep or the sounds that interrupt your concentration. I’m speaking of “statistical noise.”

In a recent post I introduced an animation that provides an overview of standard deviation. This post could have gone on and on and on, as this is a topic that has many angles on which to comment. And perhaps I’ll do that in future posts, but for today we’ll discuss noise and standard deviation.

What is noise?  Well, the often-criticized-but-frequently-cited Wikipedia defines it as “the colloquialism  for recognized amounts of unexplained variation in a sample.” We anticipate that there will be some variance, but some of it comes from unknown sources, which makes it difficult to draw conclusions about what is occurring in our sample size or population.

Interestingly, we tend to get more noise as we shorten our time periods. For example, if we measure standard deviation over the past 36 months using daily returns, we’re dealing with a great deal of noise. If, however, we lengthen our periods, our noise reduces. Thus, using months is quite common, though one might argue that quarters are better still, and why not move to years? Well, there are probably two reasons. One, for standard deviation to have much value we need at least 30 observations, and 30 quarters would equal 7 1/2 years, which may be too long as an organization can experience a lot of change over such a period. And 30 years would be even more difficult.

Yes, there’s noise even in 36 months. And when (as the video pointed out) the distribution is probably not even normal, the value of the statistic is even more questionable / challengeable. No wonder it’s a popular statistic both to use and discuss.

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