Propagation of error

November 11, 2011

(This article was first published on me nugget, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

     At the onset, this was strictly an excercise of my own curiosity and I didn't imagine writing this down in any form at all. As someone who has done some modelling work in the past, I'm embarrassed to say that I had never fully grasped how one can gauge the error of a model output without having to do some sort of Monte Carlo simulation whereby the model parameters are repeatedly randomized within a given confidence interval. Its relatively easy to imagine that a model containing many parameters, each with an associated error, will tend to propagate these errors throughout. Without getting to far over my head here, I will just say that there are defined methods for calculating the error of a variable if one knows the underlying error of the functions that define them (and I have tried out only a very simple one here!).
     In the example below, I have three main variables (x, y, and z) and two functions that define the relationships y~x and z~y. The question is, given these functions, what would be the error of a predicted z value given an initial x value? The most general rule seems to be:
     error(z~x)^2 = error(y~x)^2 + error(z~y)^2
However, correlated errors require additional terms (see Wikipedia: Propagation of uncertainty). The following example does just that by simulating correlated error terms using the MASS package's function mvrnorm().

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