Imagine practicing hitting a target using darts, bow and arrow, pistol, cannon, missile launcher, or whatever. You aim for the center of the target. If your shots land where you aimed, you are considered to be accurate. If all your shots land near each other, you are considered to be precise. The two properties are not linked. You can be accurate but not precise, precise but not accurate, neither accurate nor precise, or both accurate and precise. Accuracy and precision also apply to statistics calculated from data. If you’re trying to determine some characteristic of a population (i.e., a population parameter), you want your statistical estimates of the characteristic to be both accurate and precise. The same also applies to the data themselves. When you start measuring data for an analysis, you’ll notice that even under similar conditions, you can get dissimilar results. That lack of precision is called variability. Variability is everywhere; it’s a normal part of life. In fact, it is the spice in the soup. Without variability, all wines would taste the same. Every race would end in a tie. Even statistics might lose its charm. Your doctor wouldn’t tell you that you have about a year to live, he’d say don’t make any plans for January 11 after 6:13 PM EST. So a bit of variability isn’t such a bad thing. The important question, though, is what kind of variability?

The Inevitability of Variability
Before going further, let me clarify something. Statisticians discuss variability using a variety of terms, including errors, uncertainty, deviations, distortions, residuals, noise, inexactness, dispersion, scatter, spread, perturbations, fuzziness, and differences. To nonprofessionals, many of these terms hold pejorative connotations. But variability isn’t bad … it’s just misunderstood. Suppose you’re sitting in your living room one cold winter night contemplating the high cost of heating oil. The thermostat reads 68 degrees F, but you’re still shivering. Maybe the thermostat is broken. Maybe the heater is malfunctioning or you need more insulation. You need a warmer place to sit while you read An Inconvenient Truth, so you grab a thermometer from the medicine cabinet and start measuring temperatures around the room. It’s 115 degrees at the radiator, 68 degrees at your chair, 59 degrees at the window, and 69 degrees at the stairs. You keep measuring. It’s 73 degrees at the fish tank, 67 degrees at the couch and bookcase, 82 degrees at the TV, and 60 degrees at the door. That’s a lot of variation! Think of those temperature readings as the summation of five components: Characteristic of Population—the portion of a data value that is the same between a sample and the population. This part of a data value forms the patterns in the population that you want to uncover. If you think of the living room space as the population you’re measuring, the characteristic temperature would be the 68 degrees at your chair where you want to read. Natural Variability—the inherent differences between a sample and the population. This part of a data value is the uncertainty or variability in population patterns. In a