Suppose I have $N$ samples each of size $n$, drawn from the same population, where each sample has its own sample variance $s_i^2$.

I understand that for any given sample, a first estimate of the population variance $\sigma^2$ is:

$$\hat{\sigma}^2 = s_i^2 \displaystyle\frac{n}{n-1}$$

But what if you have multiple samples? What is the best estimate of $\sigma^2$ given multiple $s^2$?

  • $\begingroup$ Some meta-analysis techniques might be of interest. $\endgroup$ – Noah Nov 3 '16 at 4:46
  • $\begingroup$ Could you explain why you multiply the sample variance by $(n-1)/n$? There's nothing illegitimate about it, but your reason for including that factor will shed light on what you might mean by "best" estimate of $\sigma^2$. $\endgroup$ – whuber Nov 8 '16 at 16:14
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    $\begingroup$ @whuber I made a mistake, the factor should have been $n/(n-1)$. The factor makes it an unbiased estimator of the population variance, according to mathworld.wolfram.com/SampleVariance.html $\endgroup$ – Delyle Nov 16 '16 at 18:36
  • $\begingroup$ In that case the answer you have accepted is completely wrong, understanding you want an unbiased estimate of the variance of the population. The expected value of the accepted answer is $N$ times larger than it should be. It is also inadmissible in the sense that other unbiased estimates can be constructed that have smaller standard errors. $\endgroup$ – whuber Nov 16 '16 at 18:38
  • $\begingroup$ @whuber Thank you for pointing that out. Do you have a proposed solution? Also it would probably be best to comment on the answer as well/instead $\endgroup$ – Delyle Nov 16 '16 at 18:42

A comment clarified that the best estimator of the variance is intended to be unbiased. A standard way to find such an estimator is to restrict one's attention to linear combinations of the estimators (because almost anything else would be difficult to analyze).

Let there be $k$ independent samples indexed by $i=1,2,\ldots, k$, each with its own unbiased variance estimator $\hat\sigma_i^2$. Let the unknown weights of the linear combination be $w_i$, so that the combined estimator will be

$$\hat\sigma^2 = \sum_{i=1}^k w_i \hat \sigma_i^2.$$

Because this is supposed to be unbiased for any population, by definition the population variance will equal its expected value:

$$\sigma^2 = \mathbb{E}(\hat\sigma^2) = \sum_{i=1}^k w_i \mathbb{E}(\hat\sigma_i^2) = \sum_{i=1}^k w_i \sigma^2 = \left(\sum_{i=1}^k w_i\right)\sigma^2.$$

Since $\sigma^2 \ne 0$ is possible, division of both sides by $\sigma^2$ implies the weights sum to unity:

$$1 = \sum_{i=1}^k w_i.$$

Let the sample size for estimator $\hat\sigma_i$ be $n_i$. (In the question all the $n_i$ are equal to $n$.) Because each estimator $\hat\sigma_i^2$ has $n_i-1$ degrees of freedom, its variance will be approximately proportional to $1/(n-1)$ times some value that is an (unknown) property $f$ of the population. (This unknown property depends on the first four moments of the population.) In fact, for a Normal population this is not an approximation at all: the variances of the estimators are exactly proportional to $1/(n_i-1)$. Therefore we may approximate the variance of the combined estimator as

$$\operatorname{Var}(\hat\sigma^2) = \operatorname{Var}\left(\sum_{i=1}^k w_i \hat\sigma_i^2\right) = \sum_{i=1}^k w_i^2 \operatorname{Var}(\hat\sigma_i^2) \approx \sum_{i=1}^k w_i^2 \frac{f}{n_i-1}.$$ The second equality is due to the independence of the $k$ samples.

Subject to the sum-to-unity constraint, this variance is minimized when the $w_i$ are proportional to $n_i-1$. Therefore an (approximate) minimum variance unbiased linear estimator of the population variance is

$$\hat\sigma^2 = \frac{1}{n_1+\cdots n_k - k}\sum_{i=1}^k (n_i-1)\hat\sigma_i^2.$$

When all the $n_i$ are equal to a common value $n$, this reduces to the arithmetic mean of the individual variance estimators. It should be intuitively obvious that some kind of equally-weighted average of all $k$ estimators would be the best one in this case.


I presume this is the issue where you have k samples size n of a population that are all random with a given mean m and sample unbiassed variance s^2. As you do not have the real population mean, NOR the population variance that is used in all the textbooks, you have to find a means to not only calculate this population mean (rather easy), but also have a good estimator of the population variance. I did not find a description how to do this in the HANDBOOK OF PARAMETRIC AND NONPARAMETRIC STATISTICAL PROCEDURES (2000 pages, really quite complete) and that leaves us two ways. Theory (approach each sample of the same parameter as RANDOM and thus state the population is a sum of the INDEPENDENT samples with a weight 1/k of each, giving you a resulting population variance if you pull another sample size n. Then multiply that population variance with n to obtain the population variance when pulling single size samples). Another way is to pragmatically create a program that simulates your population (does not have to be exact) to calculate variances of many sample sizes using your guessed formula and then see what method is actually (after 1000 repetitions, computers are patient) most robust. I propose you use the theoretical approach.


How about putting a hat on your estimates of the variance for each of the N samples

$\hat{\sigma}_{i}^{2}\simeq s_{i}^{2}\frac{n-1}{n}$

and appealing to the Law of Propagation of Uncertainty, add them in quadrature to get the estimate of the overall variance


  • $\begingroup$ It looks like your formula should not have any square root and, regardless, it will grossly overestimate the variance. Try it out on some simple data to see what's going wrong. $\endgroup$ – whuber Nov 8 '16 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ I made an initial mistake which has been copied here, the factor should be $n/(n-1)$ and not the inverse. @whuber Have the issues you brought up been fixed? $\endgroup$ – Delyle Nov 16 '16 at 18:38

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