Robert W. Jernigan, in his “statpics” blog often posts pictures of normal (and other) distributions from the real world, and almost equally often posts pictures that someone else claimed to be normal distributions that clearly aren’t. In the post statpics: Not Normal Either and Why, he shows a picture of cup lid stacks that someone had labeled a normal distribution, when it was not a distribution at all. He then shows a similar-looking picture of stacks of scallop shells:

He blithely asserts that this isn’t a normal distribution either, since the number of ribs is discrete, though it is a nice pictorial representation of a histogram. I wanted him to go further, though, than just saying “not normal”, to talking about what sort of distributions the scallop shells might be from. Binomial? Poisson? How do you choose a good discrete distribution when you don’t know the underlying mechanism?

As a bioinformatician, I often need to come up with distributions for modeling inherently discrete random variables, and I find the statistical literature unhelpful—there seem to be a few well-studied examples, but little or no guidance for applications outside those few classic examples. Perhaps I’m just too ignorant in the field to be finding the right sources.

For example, I often approximate length distributions for protein or DNA sequences with lognormal distributions.

Now, lognormal distributions are inherently continuous, and the sequence lengths are inherently discrete, but I don’t know any discrete distributions that are approximately lognormal, in the way the binomial distributions are approximately normal. A lot of sequence-length distributions appear to be approximately lognormal, but I have no idea why. Even knowing how I generated the sequences in the plot above does not give me a clue why they should fit a lognormal distribution so well.

We also often use Gumbel distributions for the null model for the results of searches, because they are a limiting distributions for “max” in the way that normal distributions are a limiting distribution for “sum”. But the Gumbel distributions are continuous, and we are often taking maxes of nonnegative-integer-valued scores—what is the appropriate discrete analog for Gumbel distributions?

If anyone reading this blog is a statistician and can provide me pointers to understandable literature on choosing discrete distributions, or can tell me what discrete distributions might be approximately lognormal, I’d appreciate knowing about them.

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