Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics Lesson of the Day – Convex Functions and Jensen’s Inequality

Consider a real-valued function f(x) that is continuous on the interval [x_1, x_2], where x_1 and x_2 are any 2 points in the domain of f(x).  Let

x_m = 0.5x_1 + 0.5x_2

be the midpoint of x_1 and x_2.  Then, if

f(x_m) \leq 0.5f(x_1) + 0.5f(x_2),

then f(x) is defined to be midpoint convex.

More generally, let’s consider any point within the interval [x_1, x_2].  We can denote this arbitrary point as

x_\lambda = \lambda x_1 + (1 - \lambda)x_2, where 0 < \lambda < 1.

Then, if

f(x_\lambda) \leq \lambda f(x_1) + (1 - \lambda) f(x_2),

then f(x) is defined to be convex.  If

f(x_\lambda) < \lambda f(x_1) + (1 - \lambda) f(x_2),

then f(x) is defined to be strictly convex.

There is a very elegant and powerful relationship about convex functions in mathematics and in mathematical statistics called Jensen’s inequality.  It states that, for any random variable Y with a finite expected value and for any convex function g(y),

E[g(Y)] \geq g[E(Y)].

A function f(x) is defined to be concave if -f(x) is convex.  Thus, Jensen’s inequality can also be stated for concave functions.  For any random variable Z with a finite expected value and for any concave function h(z),

E[h(Z)] \leq h[E(Z)].

In future Statistics Lessons of the Day, I will prove Jensen’s inequality and discuss some of its implications in mathematical statistics.

Your thoughtful comments are much appreciated!

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