There is no doubt that everyone who are in the so-called big data industry must know some statistics. However, statistics means differently to different peoples.

Statistics is an old field that was developed in the 18th century. In those times, people were urged to make conclusions out of a vast amount of data which were virtually not available, or were very costly to obtain. For example, someone wanted to know the average salary of the whole population, which required the census staff to survey the information from everyone in the population. It was something expensive to do in the old days. Therefore, sampling techniques were devised, and the wanted quantities can be estimated using an appropriate statistic.

Or when the scientists performed an experiment, even one data point costs a few million dollars. The experiments had to be designed in a way that the scientists extract the wanted information by looking at a few data points.

Or in testing some hypotheses, one needs to know only how to accept or reject a hypothesis using the statistical information available.

Hence, the traditional statistics is a body of knowledge that deduce the information of a whole population from a limited amount of data from a sample.

Theoretical Statistical Physics

There is a branch in physics called statistical physics, which originated from the 19th century. Later it became useful since Albert Einstein published its paper on Brownian motion in 1905. And now the methods in statistical physics is not only applied in solid state physics or condensed matter physics, but also in biophysics (e.g., diffusion), econophysics (e.g., the fairness and wealth distribution, see this previous blog post), and quantitative finance (e.g., binomial model, and its relation with Black-Scholes equation).

The techniques involved in statistical physics includes is the knowledge of probability theory and stochastic calculus (such as Ito calculus). Of course, it is how entropy, a concept from thermodynamics, entered probability theory and information theory. Extracted quantity are mostly expectation values and correlations, which are of interest to theorists.

This is very different from traditional statistics. When people know that I am a statistical physicist, they expect me to be familiar with t-test, which is not really the case. (Very often I have to look up every time I used them.)

Statistics in the Computing World

Unlike in traditional statistics or statistical physics, nowadays, we often get the statistical information directly from a vast amount of available data, thanks to the advance of technology and the reducing cost to access the technology. You can easily calculate the average salary of a population by a single command line on R or Python. Hence, statistics is no longer about extracting information from a limited amount of data, but a vast amount of data.

On the other hand, mathematical modeling is still important, but in a different sense. Models in statistical physics describes the world, but in information retrieval, models are built according to what we need.

P.S.: Philipp Janert wrote something similar in his Chapter 10 (“What You Really Need to Know About Classical Statistics”) in his “Data Analysis Using Open Source Tools“:

The basic statistical methods that we know today were developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mostly in Great Britain, by a very small group of people. Of those, one worked for the Guinness brewing company and another—the most influential one of them—worked at an agricultural research lab (trying to increase crop yields and the like). This bit of historical context tells us something about their working conditions and primary challenges.

No computational capabilities All computations had to be performed with paper and pencil.

No graphing capabilities, either All graphs had to be generated with pencil, paper, and a ruler. (And complicated graphs—such as those requiring prior transformations or calculations using the data—were especially cumbersome.)

Very small and very expensive data sets Data sets were small (often not more than four to five points) and could be obtained only with great difficulty. (When it always takes a full growing season to generate a new data set, you try very hard to make do with the data you already have!)

In other words, their situation was almost entirely the opposite of our situation today:

• Computational power that is essentially free (within reason)
• Interactive graphing and visualization capabilities on every desktop
• Often huge amounts of data

It should therefore come as no surprise that the methods developed by those early researchers seem so out of place to us: they spent a great amount of effort and ingenuity solving problems we simply no longer have! This realization goes a long way toward explaining why classical statistics is the way it is and why it often seems so strange to us today.

P.S.: The graph at the beginning of this blog entry was plotted in Mathematica, by running the following:

Plot[Evaluate@Table[PDF[MaxwellDistribution[σ], x], {σ, {1, 2, 3}}], {x, 0, 10}, Filling -> Axis]

Wall Street is not only a place of facilitating the money flow, but also a playground for scientists.

When I was young, I saw one of my uncles plotting prices for stocks to perform technical analysis. When I was in college, my friends often talked about investing in a few financial futures and options. When I was doing my graduate degree in physics, we studied John Hull’s famous textbook [Hull 2011] on quantitative finance to learn about financial modeling. A few of my classmates went to Wall Street to become quantitative analysts or financial software developers. There are ups and downs in the financial markets. But as long as we are in a capitalist society, finance is a subject we never ignore. However, scientists have not come up with a consensus about the nature of a financial market.

Agent-Based Models

Economists believe that individuals in a market are rational being who always aim at maximizing their profits. They often apply agent-based models, which employs complex system theories or game theory.

Random Processes and Statistical Physics

However, a lot of mathematicians in Wall Street (including quantitative analysts and econophysicists) see the stock prices as undergoing Brownian motion. [Hull 2011, Baaquie 2007] They employ tools in statistical physics and stochastic processes to study the pricings of various financial derivatives. Therefore, the random-process and econophysical approaches have nothing much about stock price prediction (despite the fact that they do need a “return rate” in their model.) Random processes are unpredictable.

However, some sort of predictions carry great values. For example, when there is overhypes or bubbles in the market, we want to know when it will burst. There are models that predict defaults and bubble burst in a market using the log-periodic power law (LPPL). [Wosnitza, Denz 2013] In addition, there has been research showing the leverage effect in stock markets in developed countries such as Germany (c.f. fluctuation-dissipation theorem in statistical physics), and anti-leverage effect in China (Shanghai and Shenzhen). [Qiu, Zhen, Ren, Trimper 2006]

Reconciling Intelligence and Randomness

There are some values to both views. It is hard to believe that stock prices are completely random, as the economic environment and the public opinions must affect the stock prices. People can neither be completely rational nor completely random.

There has been some study in reconciling game theory and random processes, in an attempt to bring economists and mathematicians together. In this theoretical framework, financial systems still sought to attain the maximum entropy (randomness), but the “particles” in the system behaves intelligently. [Venkatasubramanian, Luo, Sethuraman 2015] (See my another blog entry: MathAnalytics (1) – Beautiful Mind, Physical Nature and Economic Inequality) We are not sure how successful this attempt will be at this point.

Sentiment Analysis

As people are talking about big data in recent years, there have been attempts to apply machine learning algorithms in finance. However, scientists tend not to price using machine learning algorithms because these algorithms mostly perform classification. However, there are attempts, with natural language processing (NLP) techniques, to predict the stock prices by detecting the public emotions (or sentiments) in social media such as Twitter. [Bollen, Mao, Zeng 2010] It has been found that measuring the public mood in a few dimensions (including Calm, Alert, Sure, Vital, Kind, and Happy) allows scientists to accurately predict the trend of Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA). However, some hackers take advantage on the sentiment analysis on Twitter. In 2013, there was a rumor on Twitter saying the White House being bombed, The computers responded instantly and automatically by performing trading, causing the stock market to fall immediately. But the market restored quickly after it was discovered that the news was fake. (Fig. 1)

Fig. 1: DJIA fell because of a rumor of the White House being bombed, but recovered when discovered the news was fake (taken from http://www.rt.com/news/syrian-electronic-army-ap-twitter-349/)

P.S.: While I was writing this, I saw an interesting statement in the paper about leverage effect. [Qiu, Zhen, Ren, Trimper 2006] The authors said that:

Why do the German and Chinese markets exhibit different return-volatility correlations? Germany is a developed country. To some extent, people show risk aversion, and therefore, may be nervous in trading as the stock price is falling. This induces a higher volatility. When the price is rising, people feel safe and are inactive in trading. Thus, the stock price tends to be stable. This should be the social origin of the leverage effect. However, China just experiences the first stage of capitalism, and people are somewhat excessive speculative in the financial markets. Therefore, people rush for trading as the stock price increases. When the price drops, people stay inactive in trading and wait for rising up of the stock price. That explains the antileverage effect.

Does this paragraph written in 2006 give a hint of what happened in China in 2015 now? (Fig. 2)

Fig. 2: The fall of Chinese stock market in 2015 (taken from http://www.economicpolicyjournal.com/2015/06/breaking-biggest-chinese-stock-market.html)