I'm currently looking into some data that was produced by an MC simulation I wrote - I expect the values to be normally distributed. Naturally I plotted a histogram and it looks reasonable (I guess?):

[Top left: histogram with dist.pdf(), top right: cumulative histogram with dist.cdf(), bottom: QQ-plot, data vs dist]

Then I decided to take a deeper look into this with some statistical tests. (Note that dist = stats.norm(loc=np.mean(data), scale=np.std(data)).) What I did and the output I got was the following:

  1. Kolmogorov-Smirnov test:

    scipy.stats.kstest(data, 'norm', args=(data_avg, data_sig))
    KstestResult(statistic=0.050096921447209564, pvalue=0.20206939857573536)
  2. Shapiro-Wilk test:

    (0.9810476899147034, 1.3054057490080595e-05)
    # where the first value is the test statistic and the second one is the p-value.
  3. QQ-plot:

    stats.probplot(dat, dist=dist)

My conclusions from this would be:

  • by looking at the histogram and the cumulative histogram, I would definitely assume a normal distribution

  • same holds after looking at the QQ plot (does it ever get much better?)

  • the KS test says: 'yes this is a normal distribution'

My confusion is: the SW test says it is not normally distributed (p-value much smaller than significance alpha=0.05, and the initial hypothesis was a normal distribution). I don't understand this, does anyone have a better interpretation? Did I screw up at some point?

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    $\begingroup$ QQplots for normality can be better than that: try plotting some random normals of the same sample size to get a benchmark. You have slight non-normality, as indicated by systematic curvature on the QQplot. Histograms and cumulative distribution plots are less useful for precise work. I wouldn't privilege K-S here; it tends to be more sensitive in the middle of a distribution than in the tails, which is the reverse of what you need. S-W is a test, and doesn't (can't!) measure how problematic non-normality is. $\endgroup$
    – Nick Cox
    Aug 21, 2017 at 12:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Nick This application of K-S is invalid, because it compares the data to a Normal distribution with parameters determined by the data: it needs the Lilliefors version. (I know you know that, but you seem to have overlooked this error.) Consequently its p-value is grossly too high. $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Aug 21, 2017 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Nick I presumed the application was erroneous, based on two pieces of evidence: (1) the function name refers to K-S and (2) there is no way in the args argument to reveal whether the parameters were derived from the data or not. The documentation is not clear, but its lack of any mention of these distinctions strongly suggests it is not performing the Lilliefors test. That test is described, with a code example, at stackoverflow.com/a/22135929/844723. $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Aug 21, 2017 at 14:17
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    $\begingroup$ Ah! This is something I found fishy but I wasn't aware of that method - I will change that right away. Thanks for pointing that out @whuber! $\endgroup$ Aug 21, 2017 at 14:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Nick I love the K-S test for several reasons: its simplicity, its direct connection to the Q-Q plot, its flexibility, and its power. I maintain that every statistical test can be visualized and (almost) every visualization suggests a corresponding test--and this is one of the best examples of that thesis (especially if one plots the residuals in a Q-Q plot, which is visually more powerful). Although I have implemented many other GoF tests like S-W and S-F and A-D, K-S has always been my go-to test for those (relatively rare) occasions when a formal test of distribution was needed. $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Aug 21, 2017 at 14:43

2 Answers 2


There are innumerable ways a distribution can differ from a normal distribution. No test could capture all of them. As a result, each test differs in how it checks to see if your distribution matches the normal. For example, the KS test looks at the quantile where your empirical cumulative distribution function differs maximally from the normal's theoretical cumulative distribution function. This is often somewhere in the middle of the distribution, which isn't where we typically care about mismatches. The SW test focuses on the tails, which is where we typically do care if the distributions are similar. As a result, the SW is usually preferred. In addition, the KW test is not valid if you are using distribution parameters that were estimated from your sample (see: What is the difference between the Shapiro-Wilk test of normality and the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test of normality?). You should use the SW here.

But plots are generally recommended and tests are not (see: Is normality testing 'essentially useless'?). You can see from all your plots that you have a heavy right tail and a light left tail relative to a true normal. That is, you have a little bit of right skew.


You can't cherry pick normality tests based on the results. In this case, you either go with the rejection in any test conducted, or not use them at all. KS test is not very powerful, it's not a "specialized" normality test. If anything SW is probably more trustworthy in this case.

To me your QQ plot has signs of either fat right tail or skew to the left, or both. I would suggest using Tukey's tool to study the fatness of tails. It'll give you an indication how much a distribution is like normal or Cauchy.

  • $\begingroup$ How do you conclude from QQ-plots to the fatness of the tails? And: which distribution would you suggest? $\endgroup$ Aug 21, 2017 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ @rammelmuller, the fatter tails would show s-like curve where left bends down and right bends up. In your case the left bends up too, which could be a sign of left skew. $\endgroup$
    – Aksakal
    Aug 21, 2017 at 13:56
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for pointing out the tool, I'll look into it. Just for the sake of completeness: I have some other datasets and the results are sometimes slightly differ: the upper tail of the QQ plot varies, but the lower tail is consistently a little too high - a sign for skewedness? $\endgroup$ Aug 21, 2017 at 14:03
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    $\begingroup$ I think you need to ask yourself how important is normality assumption testing for you as @NickCox suggested. Why are you testing in the first place? Short tail up and long term down could be a sign of short tails. Most importantly this may all be inconsequential to you $\endgroup$
    – Aksakal
    Aug 21, 2017 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ I am aware, that I might get decapitated after this statement, but here I go: I need my data to be "reasonably gaussian" - if there was something very fishy, i.e. extremely fat tails or extreme skewness, then I would have to hunt for some fundamental issues. This doesn't seem to be the case and the project is fine. The reason for the question here was more to check if I am not entirely wrong in my doing (i.e. interpreting results and such) $\endgroup$ Aug 21, 2017 at 14:22

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