Mathematical and Applied Statistics Lesson of the Day – Don’t Use the Terms “Independent Variable” and “Dependent Variable” in Regression

In math and science, we learn the equation of a line as

y = mx + b,

with y being called the dependent variable and x being called the independent variable.  This terminology holds true for more complicated functions with multiple variables, such as in polynomial regression.

I highly discourage the use of “independent” and “dependent” in the context of statistics and regression, because these terms have other meanings in statistics.  In probability, 2 random variables X_1 and X_2 are independent if their joint distribution is simply a product of their marginal distributions, and they are dependent if otherwise.  Thus, the usage of “independent variable” for a regression model with 2 predictors becomes problematic if the model assumes that the predictors are random variables; a random effects model is an example with such an assumption.  An obvious question for such models is whether or not the independent variables are independent, which is a rather confusing question with 2 uses of the word “independent”.  A better way to phrase that question is whether or not the predictors are independent.

Thus, in a statistical regression model, I strongly encourage the use of the terms “response variable” or “target variable” (or just “response” and “target”) for Y and the terms “explanatory variables”, “predictor variables”, “predictors”, “covariates”, or “factors” for x_1, x_2, .., x_p.

(I have encountered some statisticians who prefer to reserve “covariate” for continuous predictors and “factor” for categorical predictors.)

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Applied Statistics Lesson of the Day – Fractional Factorial Design and the Sparsity-of-Effects Principle

Consider again an experiment that seeks to determine the causal relationships between G factors and the response, where G > 1.  Ideally, the sample size is large enough for a full factorial design to be used.  However, if the sample size is small and the number of possible treatments is large, then a fractional factorial design can be used instead.  Such a design assigns the experimental units to a select fraction of the treatments; these treatments are chosen carefully to investigate the most significant causal relationships, while leaving aside the insignificant ones.  

When, then, are the significant causal relationships?  According to the sparsity-of-effects principle, it is unlikely that complex, higher-order effects exist, and that the most important effects are the lower-order effects.  Thus, assign the experimental units so that main (1st-order) effects and the 2nd-order interaction effects can be investigated.  This may neglect the discovery of a few significant higher-order effects, but that is the compromise that a fractional factorial design makes when the sample size available is low and the number of possible treatments is high.  

Applied Statistics Lesson of the Day – Additive Models vs. Interaction Models in 2-Factor Experimental Designs

In a recent “Machine Learning Lesson of the Day“, I discussed the difference between a supervised learning model in machine learning and a regression model in statistics.  In that lesson, I mentioned that a statistical regression model usually consists of a systematic component and a random component.  Today’s lesson strictly concerns the systematic component.

An additive model is a statistical regression model in which the systematic component is the arithmetic sum of the individual effects of the predictors.  Consider the simple case of an experiment with 2 factors.  If Y is the response and X_1 and X_2 are the 2 predictors, then an additive linear model for the relationship between the response and the predictors is

Y = \beta_0 + \beta_1 X_1 + \beta_2 X_2 + \varepsilon

In other words, the effect of X_1 on Y does not depend on the value of X_2, and the effect of X_2 on Y does not depend on the value of X_1.

In contrast, an interaction model is a statistical regression model in which the systematic component is not the arithmetic sum of the individual effects of the predictors.  In other words, the effect of X_1 on Y depends on the value of X_2, or the effect of X_2 on Y depends on the value of X_1.  Thus, such a regression model would have 3 effects on the response:

  1. X_1
  2. X_2
  3. the interaction effect of X_1 and X_2

full factorial design with 2 factors uses the 2-factor ANOVA model, which is an example of an interaction model.  It assumes a linear relationship between the response and the above 3 effects.

Y = \beta_0 + \beta_1 X_1 + \beta_2 X_2 + \beta_3 X_1 X_2 + \varepsilon

Note that additive models and interaction models are not confined to experimental design; I have merely used experimental design to provide examples for these 2 types of models.

Applied Statistics Lesson of the Day – The Full Factorial Design

An experimenter may seek to determine the causal relationships between G factors and the response, where G > 1.  On first instinct, you may be tempted to conduct G separate experiments, each using the completely randomized design with 1 factor.  Often, however, it is possible to conduct 1 experiment with G factors at the same time.  This is better than the first approach because

  • it is faster
  • it uses less resources to answer the same questions
  • the interactions between the G factors can be examined

Such an experiment requires the full factorial design; in this design, the treatments are all possible combinations of all levels of all factors.  After controlling for confounding variables and choosing the appropriate range and number of levels of the factor, the different treatments are applied to the different groups, and data on the resulting responses are collected.  

The simplest full factorial experiment consists of 2 factors, each with 2 levels.  Such an experiment would result in 2 \times 2 = 4 treatments, each being a combination of 1 level from the first factor and 1 level from the second factor.  Since this is a full factorial design, experimental units are independently assigned to all treatments.  The 2-factor ANOVA model is commonly used to analyze data from such designs.

In later lessons, I will discuss interactions and 2-factor ANOVA in more detail.