I need to fit data points on a power law and each one of these carries an uncertainty.

I've been using Python, more precisely scipy.optimize.curve_fit to get the job done but I don't know how to handle the uncertainties with it.

I thought about using a linear fit in log-log scale but it seems less precise compared to fitting directly on a power-law (not taking care of the uncertainties, just testing both on generated data and added noise).

I found that but it's not really helping me.

I wouldn't mind using R to do the job if needed.


2 Answers 2


To clarify the answer by user777, there are two packages that I and my collaborators have developed specifically for rigorously fitting power-law distributions. Both can be found here. One is for when your data are integer or real values, while the other (which is the one that user777 linked to) is for binned data, i.e., when you only know the number of the measurements within each of several contiguous ranges.

In each case, the packages have four parts:

  1. fit the power-law model to your data,
  2. estimate the uncertainty in your parameter estimates,
  3. estimate the p-value for your fitted power law, and
  4. compare your power-law model to alternative heavy-tail models.

These methods are described exhaustively in two references, both of which are freely available on the arxiv pre-print server (just search for their titles). The approach they use to fit the model is maximum likelihood, which is far more accurate than classic "curve fitting" approaches on scatter plots.

[integer and continuous quantities] A Clauset, C R Shalizi, and MEJ Newman. "Power-law distributions in empirical data." SIAM Review 51, 661-703 (2009).

[binned quantities] Y Virkar and A Clauset. "Power-law distributions in binned empirical data." Annals of Applied Statistics 8, 89-119 (2014).

In your case, I'm not entirely sure what you mean by each data point carrying an uncertainty. Do you mean a classic measurement uncertainty, like the kind you have when you measure the length or weight of an object (and is thus normally distributed)? If the variance is modest and the number of data points large, then you can get a pretty good estimate of the power-law parameter using our methods even if you ignore the uncertainty (because the estimator takes the logarithm of each value, and normally distributed fluctuations become highly compressed under the log). If you don't have much data, or if the uncertainty is really large, then I would recommend choosing a reasonable binning scheme (powers of 2 or something) and applying the binned-data methods.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you aaron for the detailed answer. Indeed my uncertainties as I decided to call them are normally distributed as each of my data point comes from a different Monte-Carlo, my problem was/is that they come with very different orders of uncertainties $\sigma_i$ and so I was looking at way of weighting them (as with the $\frac{1}{\sigma_i^2}$ weight in linear fit but tuned for power law fitting. It seems very wrong to me that they have the same influence in the power law coefficient when some are much more reliable than others. I will look into the binning method $\endgroup$ Sep 8, 2014 at 12:05
  • $\begingroup$ or just brush off the most imprecise values if I can't do more. $\endgroup$ Sep 8, 2014 at 12:06

In the paper Power Law Distributions in Empirical Data, the authors exhaustively describe how to rigorously fit a power law and test the quality of the power law fit. Note that the authors explicitly warn that using a linear fit on the log-log scale is undesirable. As far as I can tell, this paper is the canonical resource for power law fits of empirical data.

R code for the paper, among other power-law related computer code, is available on Aaron Clauset's website.

Since the entire paper is concerned solely with estimating and validating this sole procedure, I would not feel comfortable attempting to summarize it in this format.

Clauset, Aaron, Cosma Rohilla Shalizi, and Mark EJ Newman. "Power-law distributions in empirical data." SIAM review 51.4 (2009): 661-703.


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