Infoscience

Journal article

Sample and population exponents of generalized Taylor's law

Taylor's law (TL) states that the variance V of a nonnegative random variable is a power function of its mean M; i.e., V = aM(b). TL has been verified extensively in ecology, where it applies to population abundance, physics, and other natural sciences. Its ubiquitous empirical verification suggests a context-independent mechanism. Sample exponents b measured empirically via the scaling of sample mean and variance typically cluster around the value b=2. Some theoretical models of population growth, however, predict a broad range of values for the population exponent b pertaining to the mean and variance of population density, depending on details of the growth process. Is the widely reported sample exponent b similar or equal to 2 the result of ecological processes or could it be a statistical artifact? Here, we apply large deviations theory and finite-sample arguments to show exactly that in a broad class of growth models the sample exponent is b similar or equal to 2 regardless of the underlying population exponent. We derive a generalized TL in terms of sample and population exponents b(jk) for the scaling of the kth vs. the jth cumulants. The sample exponent b(jk) depends predictably on the number of samples and for finite samples we obtain b(jk) similar or equal to k/j asymptotically in time, a prediction that we verify in two empirical examples. Thus, the sample exponent b similar or equal to 2 may indeed be a statistical artifact and not dependent on population dynamics under conditions that we specify exactly. Given the broad class of models investigated, our results apply to many fields where TL is used although inadequately understood.

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