I have seen random errors being defined as those which average to 0 as the number of measurements goes to infinity, and that the error is equally likely to be positive or negative. This only requires a symmetric probability distribution about zero. However typing this question into Google, I did not find a single source that suggested random errors could be anything other than gaussian. Why must random errors be gaussian?

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    $\begingroup$ This question on math stack exchange might be of interest: math.stackexchange.com/questions/2379271/… $\endgroup$
    – Carmeister
    Commented Apr 19, 2018 at 18:07
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Commented Apr 19, 2018 at 22:31
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    $\begingroup$ Random errors are never Gaussian. All statistical models are wrong but some are useful. Modeling errors as Gaussian is more often than not useful. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ You might try googling "non-Gaussian noise" $\endgroup$
    – Paul T.
    Commented Oct 12, 2018 at 13:33

7 Answers 7


Are random errors necessarily gaussian?

Errors are very often Gaussian, but not always. Here are some physical systems where random fluctuations (or "errors" if you're in a context with the thing that's varying constitutes an error) are not Gaussian:

  1. The distribution of times between clicks in a photodetector exposed to light is an exponential distribution.$^{[a]}$

  2. The number of times a photodetector clicks in a fixed period of time is a Poisson distribution.

  3. The position offset, due to uniformly distributed angle errors, of a light beam hitting a target some distance away is a Cauchy distribution.

I have seen random errors being defined as those which average to 0 as the number of measurements goes to infinity, and that the error is equally likely to be positive or negative. This only requires a symmetric probability distribution about zero.

There are distributions that have equal weight on the positive and negative side, but are not symmetric. Example: $$ P(x) = \left\{ \begin{array}{ll} 1/2 & x=1 \\ 1/4 & x=-1 \\ 1/4 & x=-2 \, . \end{array}\right.$$

However typing this question into Google, I did not find a single source that suggested random errors could be anything other than gaussian. Why must random errors be gaussian?

The fact that it's not easy to find references to non-Gaussian random errors does not mean that all random errors are Gaussian :-)

As mentioned in the other answers, many distributions in Nature are Gaussian because of the central limit theorem. The central limit theorem says that given a random variable $x$ distributed according to a function $X(x)$, if $X(x)$ has finite second moment, then given another random variable $y$ defined as the average of many instances of $x$, i.e. $$y \equiv \frac{1}{N} \sum_{i=1}^N x_i \, ,$$ the distribution $Y(y)$ is Gaussian.

The thing is, many physical processes are the sums of smaller processes. For example, the fluctuating voltage across a resistor is the sum of the voltage contributions from many individual electrons. Therefore, when you measure a voltage, you get the underlying "static" value, plus some random error produced by the noisy electrons, which because of the central limit theorem is Gaussian distributed. In other words, Gaussian distributions are very common because so many of the random things in Nature come from a sum of many small contributions.


  1. There are plenty of cases where the constituents of an underlying error mechanism have a distribution that does not have a finite second moment; the Cauchy distribution is the most common example.

  2. There are also plenty of cases where an error is simply not the sum of many small underlying contributions.

Either of these cases lead to non-Gaussian errors.

$[a]$: See this other Stack Exchange post.

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    $\begingroup$ It's true that those measurements are not Gaussian distributed; however, I'm not sure that OP would consider them errors as they are not zero-centred. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 20, 2018 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ You might see random (Gaussian) errors in the timing measurements of your photodetector (in (1)), so that the measured incidents didn't show up as exactly exponentially distributed. I think that's more the kind of thing the OP was asking about. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 20, 2018 at 14:23
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    $\begingroup$ @HelloGoodbye Anything can be made zero-centered by subtracting the mean, which, by the way, is precisely why some of these quantities could turn up as "errors". If I have some mean current from a photon detector, then the "error" on that mean has a component coming from the so-called shot noise due to the Poisson statistics of the detected individual photons. $\endgroup$
    – DanielSank
    Commented Apr 20, 2018 at 16:26
  • $\begingroup$ @EthanBolker Perhaps. I'd like to hear from OP to get a feel for whether or not they want more discussion of specific cases where the stochastic quantity looks like an "error". $\endgroup$
    – DanielSank
    Commented Apr 20, 2018 at 16:27
  • $\begingroup$ @EthanBolker the other thing is that I could ask you why there are Gaussian errors in the timing measurements, and the answer is going to come down to some other physical process that has Gaussian statistics, like the Johnson noise described in this answer. $\endgroup$
    – DanielSank
    Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 2:06

The reason is probably the central limit theorem: When you add lots of independent random variables, their sum will form a normal distribution, irrespective of their individual probability distributions. This makes normal distributions a pretty good guess if you do not have information about the origin of the error or if you have multiple sources of error. Additionally, normal distributions often occur in real-world processes.

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    $\begingroup$ Sure but not all distributions have finite second moment so not all sums of random variables are Gaussian. Furthermore, there are plenty of cases where random errors don't come from a sum of underlying smaller errors. Therefore, while Gaussian distributions are common, they're not always right. I understand that this answer says that Gaussian distributions are a good guess, and that's usually true, but not always. $\endgroup$
    – DanielSank
    Commented Apr 19, 2018 at 16:40
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    $\begingroup$ More precisely, when the error is the sum of independent variables such that each variable has a variance that is a small portion of the total variance, the sum is close to a normal distribution. If you have a thousand independent variables, and one of their variances is a thousand time the others', it won't be Gaussian unless that variable is already Gaussian. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 19, 2018 at 17:13
  • $\begingroup$ You are right in your clarifications but as DanielSank pointed out - it is usually a good guess. Maybe 21joanna12 exaggerated a tiny bit when stating that there was not "a single source" with different random errors ;) However, the overwhelming mass of naturally occurring phenomena follows a Gaussian distribution. $\endgroup$
    – lmr
    Commented Apr 19, 2018 at 19:03
  • $\begingroup$ It's nontrivial to check this for a generic data set. Many people ignore higher moments. $\endgroup$
    – JohnS
    Commented Apr 19, 2018 at 19:19

Answers here have generally addressed the different question of whether empirical variables should be Gaussian, but @21joanna12 asked about experimental errors, which admit a completely different analysis. The best resource on that question I can recommend is Chapter 7 of Probability Theory: The Logic of Science by E T Jaynes. In short, there are good reasons errors are Gaussian (albeit not literally always):

  • Sec. 7.2 considers the Herschel-Maxwell derivation, which shows that a vector-valued error of dimension $\ge 2$ with uncorrelated errors in orthogonal Cartesian components, and a spherically symmetric distribution, must have a Gaussian modulus. (Well, actually the book only checks the $2$-dimensional case explicitly, but the argument is easily extended.)
  • Sec. 7.3 considers the Gauss derivation, which shows a Gaussian distribution is the only way for the MLE of a location parameter to be equal to the arithmetic mean of the data. The notation assumes $1$-dimensional data, but I think the argument generalises provided the error's Cartesian coordinates are uncorrelated.
  • Sec. 7.5 considers the Landau derivation, which presents a Taylor-series argument that a 1D error $e$ of finite variance and zero mean has a pdf, say $p$, satisfying the diffusion equation $\partial_{\sigma^2}p=\frac{1}{2}\partial_e^2 p$ with $\sigma^2$ a variance parameter. The requirement that $\sigma^2=0\implies p(e)=\delta(e)$ then implies the solution is Gaussian.
  • Sec. 7.9 shows that without prior information, a 1D error's distribution has the following property iff it's Gaussian: the unique choice of $w_i\ge 0$ with $\sum_i w_i=1$ that minimises the variance of an estimator $\sum_i w_i x_i$ of the sample mean, with the $x_i$ our $n$ empirical data, is $w_i=n^{-1}$.
  • A related point discussed in Sec. 7.11 is that an error of given finite mean and variance maximises its entropy subject to that information iff its distribution is Gaussian. Jaynes argues that any non-entropy-maximising model exaggerates how much we can infer from our limited knowledge.

However, the short Sec. 7.12 (which I reproduce in full) gives examples where we don't expect Gaussian errors:

Once we understand the reasons for the success of Gaussian inference, we can also see very rare special circumstances where a different sampling distribution would better express our state of knowledge. For example, if we know that the errors are being generated by the unavoidable and uncontrollable rotation of some small object, in such a way that when it is at angle $\theta$, the error is $e=\alpha\cos\theta$ but the actual angle is unknown, a little analysis shows that the prior probability assignment $p(e|t)=(\pi\sqrt{\alpha^2-e^2})^{-1},\,e^2<\alpha^2$, correctly describes our state of knowledge about the error. Therefore it should be used instead of the Gaussian distribution; since it has a sharp upper bound, it may yield appreciably better estimates than would the Gaussian – even if $\alpha$ is unknown and must therefore be estimated from the data (or perhaps it is the parameter of interest to be estimated).

Or, if the error is known to have the form $e = \alpha\tan\theta$ but $\theta$ is unknown, we find that the prior probability is the Cauchy distribution $p(e|I) = \pi^{−1}\alpha/(\alpha^2 + e^2)$. Although this case is rare, we shall find it an instructive exercise to analyze inference with a Cauchy sampling distribution, because qualitatively different things can happen. Orthodoxy regards this as ‘a pathological, exceptional case’ as one referee put it, but it causes no difficulty in Bayesian analysis, which enables us to understand it.

Note these examples use the same Bayesian techniques as Sec. 7.11.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm not so sure that there's a difference between measurement errors and fluctuations in physical quantities. Measurement apparatuses are physical systems, after all. $\endgroup$
    – DanielSank
    Commented Apr 19, 2018 at 18:40
  • $\begingroup$ @DanielSank Quite. But plenty of variables discussed on this page don't fall under any such category. $\endgroup$
    – J.G.
    Commented Apr 19, 2018 at 19:00
  • $\begingroup$ Could you give an example? $\endgroup$
    – DanielSank
    Commented Apr 19, 2018 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ @DanielSank Click counts. $\endgroup$
    – J.G.
    Commented Apr 19, 2018 at 20:29
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    $\begingroup$ @DanielSank I've removed them. I didn't mean counts aren't physical; I meant they don't fall under either of the categories you said don't differ much. The original question concerned whether statistical errors are Gaussian. Click counts aren't errors. $\endgroup$
    – J.G.
    Commented Apr 19, 2018 at 20:41

Various answers appear here; I will add something that's not here yet.

First, in order that random errors have expected value $0$ and be equally likely to be positive or negative, it is not necessary that their distribution be symmetric about $0.$ It's easy to find lots of counterexamples to that.

Now suppose $$ Y_i = \alpha_0 + \alpha_1 x_{1,i} + \cdots + \alpha_p x_{p,i} + \varepsilon_i \text{ for } i=1,\ldots,n. $$ We assume

  • The errors $\varepsilon_i$ are random; the terms $\alpha_0 + \alpha_1 x_{1,i} + \cdots + \alpha_p x_{p,i}$ are not. "Random" in effect means each time you take a new sample $(Y_1,\ldots,Y_n)$ then the $n$ errors change, independently of what they were for the previous samples of $n$ observations. But the $n\times p$ numbers $x_{1,i},\ldots,x_{p,i}$ for $i=1,\ldots,n$ do not change; hence are not random.

  • The expected value of each error is $0.$

  • The errors all have the same variance $\sigma^2.$
  • The errors are uncorrelated with each other.

Here are some things we do not assume:

  • We do not assume the errors are normally distributed, or "Gaussian", if you like.
  • We do not assume that all errors have the same distribution.
  • We do not assume the errors are independent. Uncorrelatedness is a weaker assumption.

Observe that the least-squares estimate $\widehat\alpha_k$ of $\alpha_k$ is a linear combination $$c_1 Y_1+\cdots + c_n Y_n, \tag 1$$ where the coefficients $c_1,\ldots,c_n$ depend on the $n\times p$ numbers $x_{1,i},\ldots,x_{p,i}$ for $i=1,\ldots,n.$

Under those assumptions, we can show that among all linear combinations $(1)$ that are unbiased estimators of $\alpha_k,$ the one with the smallest mean squared error of estimation is the one that yields the least-squares estimates.

That is the Gauss–Markov theorem.

Thus we do not need a Gaussian distribution to get this conclusion.


There are many examples of physical phenomena that seem to be governed by non-Gaussian statistics. For instance, the Levy distribution arises in the multiple scattering of light in turbid media, where the photon path length follows this distribution.

I think any time you have rare, but important events, you will see non-Gaussian statistics, such as with the distribution of sunspots, the time between geomagnetic reversals, etc. The Gaussian is nice since it leads to relatively easy analytic calculations (in addition to the reasons already given). In dynamical systems the level spacings of energy are governed (universally) by Poisson statistics for the case of nonchaotic systems, vs. Wigner-type statistics for chaotic systems.

The whole field of Levy flights is huge. Especially in laser cooling. This book is superb: Lévy Statistics and Laser Cooling: How Rare Events Bring Atoms to Rest


Gaussian distributions are often approximations that work well enough. On the plus side, their median, mean and modes are the same by symmetry and the algorithms to find the variance and all of the other salient details are easy enough for high school, undergraduate and less math oriented scholars.

On the down-side, the domain of the Gaussian distribution is all numbers. This is problematic when we consider that many experiments can never yield values outside a certain range - negative values with absolute units (heights, areas, times, temperatures, etc...) as well as efficiencies and other unit-less values outside $[0,1]$ are often absurd. Gaussians also have no mechanism to explain skewness or kurtosis. We get away with them because the variance is often low enough that these problems don't impact the larger conclusions.

Random errors aren't usually described by a Gaussian distribution, but it is often good enough.


Quantization errors are a common practical example of a uniformly-distributed random error.

For example, you have a digital scale which reads out to the nearest 0.1 gram. You put 2.5376 grams of powder in it and it reads "2.5". Then you on put 3.6264 grams of powder and it reads "3.6". And so on. Your readings have an error which, in this case, is a uniformly-distributed random number between -0.05 and +0.05 each time. Of course it's not literally random - it's a deterministic function of the input - but in many cases it can be treated as random.

(Of course, as always, when you average a lot of quantization errors it approaches Gaussian by the central limit theorem.)


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