I have written a program which generates random data. If the program is working correctly, that data should follow a specific, known probability distribution. I would like to run the program, do some calculations on the result, and come up with a p-value.

Before anybody else says it: I understand that hypothesis testing cannot detect when the program is operating correctly. It can only detect when it is operating incorrectly in a specific way. (And even then, the test "should" fail X% of the time, depending on what significance level you choose...)

So, I am trying to gain an understanding of what tools might be appropriate. In particular:

  • I can generate as much random data as I want. All I have to do is leave the program running long enough. So I'm not limited to any specific sample size.

  • I'm interested in techniques which produce a p-value. So staring at a graph and saying "yes, that looks kinda linear" is not an interesting option. Unless there's some way of putting a hard number on the "wonkyness" of a graph. ;-)

What I know so far:

  • I've seen three main sorts of test mentioned which sound like they might be applicable: [Pearson] chi-squared test, Kolmogorov-Smirnov test and Anderson-Darling test.

  • It appears that a chi-squared test is appropriate for discrete distributions, while the other two are more appropriate for continuous distributions. (?)

  • Various sources hint that the AD test is "better" than the KS test, but fail to go into any further detail.

Ultimately, all of these tests presumably detect "different ways" of deviating from the specified null distribution. But I don't really know what the differences are yet... In summary, I'm looking for some kind of general description of where each type of test is most applicable, and what sorts of problems it detects best.

  • $\begingroup$ If you've written your own its it's almost bound to 'fail' once you get past the limits of your knowledge (that you've embedded within the design). Have a look at random.org/analysis which list some of the checking methods, and obviously stackoverflow.com/q/2130621/717355. Philosophically, If the programme is deterministic it can't be random anyway ;-) It's definitely a worthwhile subject to study (and don't forget password hacking crypo discussions). $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 15, 2014 at 17:23

3 Answers 3


Here is a general description of how the 3 methods mentioned work.

The Chi-Squared method works by comparing the number of observations in a bin to the number expected to be in the bin based on the distribution. For discrete distributions the bins are usually the discrete possibilities or combinations of those. For continuous distributions you can choose cut points to create the bins. Many functions that implement this will automatically create the bins, but you should be able to create your own bins if you want to compare in specific areas. The disadvantage of this method is that differences between the theoretical distribution and the empirical data that still put the values in the same bin will not be detected, an example would be rounding, if theoretically the numbers between 2 and 3 should be spread througout the range (we expect to see values like 2.34296), but in practice all those values are rounded to 2 or 3 (we don't even see a 2.5) and our bin includes the range from 2 to 3 inclusive, then the count in the bin will be similar to the theoretical prediction (this can be good or bad), if you want to detect this rounding you can just manually choose the bins to capture this.

The KS test statistic is the maximum distance between the 2 Cumulative Distribution Functions being compared (often a theoretical and an empirical). If the 2 probability distributions only have 1 intersection point then 1 minus the maximum distance is the area of overlap between the 2 probability distributions (this helps some people visualize what is being measured). Think of plotting on the same plot the theoretical distribution function and the EDF then measure the distance between the 2 "curves", the largest difference is the test statistic and it is compared against the distribution of values for this when the null is true. This captures differences is shape of the distribution or 1 distribution shifted or stretched compared to the other. It does not have a lot of power based on single outliers (if you take the maximum or minimum in the data and send it to Infinity or Negative Infinity then the maximum effect it will have on the test stat is $\frac1n$. This test depends on you knowing the parameters of the reference distribution rather than estimating them from the data (your situation seems fine here). If you estimate the parameters from the same data then you can still get a valid test by comparing to your own simulations rather than the standard reference distribution.

The Anderson-Darling test also uses the difference between the CDF curves like the KS test, but rather than using the maximum difference it uses a function of the total area between the 2 curves (it actually squares the differences, weights them so the tails have more influence, then integrates over the domain of the distributions). This gives more weight to outliers than KS and also gives more weight if there are several small differences (compared to 1 big difference that KS would emphasize). This may end up overpowering the test to find differences that you would consider unimportant (mild rounding, etc.). Like the KS test this assumes that you did not estimate parameters from the data.

Here is a graph to show the general ideas of the last 2:

enter image description here

based on this R code:

tmp <- rnorm(25)
edf <- approxfun( sort(tmp), (0:24)/25, method='constant', 
    yleft=0, yright=1, f=1 )

par(mfrow=c(3,1), mar=c(4,4,0,0)+.1)
curve( edf, from=-3, to=3, n=1000, col='green' )
curve( pnorm, from=-3, to=3, col='blue', add=TRUE)

tmp.x <- seq(-3, 3, length=1000)
ediff <- function(x) pnorm(x) - edf(x)
m.x <- tmp.x[ which.max( abs( ediff(tmp.x) ) ) ]
ediff( m.x )  # KS stat
segments( m.x, edf(m.x), m.x, pnorm(m.x), col='red' )  # KS stat

curve( ediff, from=-3, to=3, n=1000 )
abline(h=0, col='lightgrey')    

ediff2 <- function(x) (pnorm(x) - edf(x))^2/( pnorm(x)*(1-pnorm(x)) )*dnorm(x)
curve( ediff2, from=-3, to=3, n=1000 )

The top graph shows an EDF of a sample from a standard normal compared to the CDF of the standard normal with a line showing the KS stat. The middle graph then shows the difference in the 2 curves (you can see where the KS stat occurs). The bottom is then the squared, weighted difference, the AD test is based on the area under this curve (assuming I got everything correct).

Other tests look at the correlation in a qqplot, look at the slope in the qqplot, compare the mean, var, and other stats based on the moments.

  • $\begingroup$ +1, this is a good answer to the actual question (unlike mine...). The description running through the middle of paragraph 3 just begs for an illustrative figure, should you feel inclined to make one. $\endgroup$ Commented May 7, 2012 at 18:18
  • $\begingroup$ That is a really nice answer. Just to make sure I understand completely: KS test returns the largest deviation between the CDF and the EDF, while AD returns the total [weighted] area between the two curves? $\endgroup$ Commented May 7, 2012 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ @MathematicalOrchid, mostly correct, the AD squares the distance, then weights, then integrates, so it is somewhat different from the area (though for understanding, thinking about it as an area is probably ok and much simpler). $\endgroup$
    – Greg Snow
    Commented May 7, 2012 at 18:35
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I expect that if your theoretical distribution had a point mass (vertical jump in the CDF at a given point) and the actual distribution of your data had a point mass at almost, but not quite, the same place then the KS test may be superior to the AD test. But that case is probably a bit contrived. The KS test does allow for 1 sided tests where the AD is always 2-sided, so that would be another difference (just not common). $\endgroup$
    – Greg Snow
    Commented May 7, 2012 at 20:09
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I do not like the @MathematicalOrchid characterization that the KS statistic depends only on "one extreme point". The location of that "one point" (often in the middle of the distribution) in a CDF depends on the values of the other points in the set and so is not as isolated or solitary as that language would suggest to the naive listener. $\endgroup$
    – DWin
    Commented May 7, 2012 at 21:22

+1 for writing a clear and detailed question. I hope that my answer isn't too frustrating. I believe that hypothesis testing is not an appropriate approach in your case. Null hypothesis significance testing is a reasonable thing to do when the answer could be yes or no, but you don't know which. (Unfortunately, it doesn't actually tell you which, but this is a different issue.) In your case, I gather, you want to know if your algorithm is good. However, it is known (with certainty), that no computer program can generate truly random data from any probability distribution. This is true firstly, because all computers are finite state machines, and thus can only produce pseudorandom numbers. Furthermore (setting the lack of true randomness aside), it is not possible that the generated values perfectly follow any continuous distribution. There are several ways to understand this, but perhaps the easiest is that there will be 'gaps' in the number line, which is not true of any continuous random variable. Moreover, these gaps are not all perfectly equally wide or perfectly equally spaced. Among computer scientists who work on pseudorandom number generation, the name of the game is to improve the algorithms such that the gaps are smaller, more even, with longer periods (and also that can generate more values faster). At any rate, these facts establish that hypothesis testing is the wrong approach for determining if your algorithm is properly following "a specific, known probability distribution", because it isn't. (Sorry.)

Instead, a more appropriate framework is to determine how close your data are to the theoretical distribution. For this, I would recommend reconsidering plots, specifically qq-plots and pp-plots. (Again, I recognize that this must be frustrating, and I apologize for that.) However, you don't have to actually make the plots or look at them, as weird as that sounds. Instead, having converted your data appropriately for plotting, and having calculated the corresponding values from the theoretical distribution in question, you can correlate them. This gives you a number, specifically an r-score, just like you want. Moreover, the number gives you an appropriate measure of how good your algorithm is. For this process, you can generate as much data as you would like; more data will give you more precision with respect to the measurement. That is, we have shifted our conception of power from $1-\beta$, the probability of rejecting a truly false null (which is guaranteed), to the accuracy in parameter estimation perspective. Obviously, your goal here is to produce an algorithm that gets you as close to $r=1$ as possible. It may well be worthwhile to do this for both types of plots as they have different strengths and weaknesses (specifically, qq-plots give you better resolution in the tails of the distribution, whereas pp-plots afford better resolution in the center).

On one other note, with regard to evaluating the quality of your algorithm, you may want to time it relative to other standard pRNG's.

Hope this helps.

  • $\begingroup$ Not precisely what I asked for, but insightful none the less. I presume by "not continuous" you are basically referring to the fact that computers do not implement infinite-precision arithmetic? $\endgroup$ Commented May 7, 2012 at 18:30
  • $\begingroup$ That's a big part of it, but not the whole of the issue. This is a topic that is immensely complex. $\endgroup$ Commented May 7, 2012 at 19:22
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Some of the ideas of @gung's first paragraph are implemented in the function SnowsPenultimateNormalityTest in the TeachingDemos package for R. I agree with @gung's idea of looking at a measure of closeness rather than focusing on a p-value. One problem with using the correlation in the qq plot for this is that if your data has the correct shape, but different mean, variance, etc. you can still get really high correlation. An alternative is to use the KS statistic or AD statistic as measures of difference from the theoretical. $\endgroup$
    – Greg Snow
    Commented May 7, 2012 at 20:02
  • $\begingroup$ @gung, thank you for the answer. Could you please elaborate a bit more on “having converted your data appropriately for plotting, and having calculated the corresponding values from the theoretical distribution in question, you can correlate them”? Have computed the data for pp- or qq-plotting, what would be the next step to get the r-score you mentioned? Is it some well-known test? Could you please give a reference? Thank you! $\endgroup$
    – Ivan
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 7:50

I haven't completely read all the answers but I do see they are pretty thorough and accurate. Running the risk that I am repeating something buried in the long answers I just want to say that v=the chi square test can be used for continuous data. It may not be the best test and like many tests it relies on asymptotic theory and so may not be accurate in small samples with sparse cells (this depends also on how you do the binning). Anderson-Darling is more powerful for testing normality than the K-S test but K-S may be better for other continuous distributions. Lillefors has a test that is designed for exponential distributions.


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