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Nonparametrics: The Early Years—Impressions and Recollections

Gottfried E. Noether a a Department of Statistics , University of Connecticut , Storrs , CT , 06268 , USA Published online: 30 Mar 2012.

To cite this article: Gottfried E. Noether (1984) Nonparametrics: The Early Years — Impressions and Recollections, The American Statistician, 38:3, 173-178, DOI: 10.1080/00031305.1984.10483194


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Nonparametrics: The Early Years- Impressions and Recollections


In 1942 Wolfowitz introduced the term nonparametric into the statistical literature to call attention to the need for extending then-existing statistical theory beyond the customary parametric framework. Subsequently, statis- tical methods that did not depend on a strictly para- metric setup became known as nonparametric methods. This article surveys developments in nonparametrics roughly up to 1960. The suggestion is made that statis- tics might be better served by eliminating the term non- parametric altogether from the statistical vocabulary.

Nonparametrics is nearly as old as statistics itself. The

Bibliography of Nonparametric Statistics (Savage 1962)

contains an entry dated 1710. In that year John Arbuthnot-scholar, scientist, mathematician, literary figure, and physician to Queen Anne-had a paper published entitled "An Argument for Divine Provi- dence, Taken from the Constant Regularity Observed in the Births of Both Sexes." In the paper, Arbuthnot performed what surely must have been the first sign test and likely the first test ever of a statistical hypothesis. From records of christenings of infants in the city of London, Arbuthnot had noted that for each of the 82 years from 1629 to 1710, the number of male births exceeded the number of female births. On the basis of these observations, he rejected what he called the "hy- pothesis of chance," which assigned probability 1/2 to an excess of male over female births in anyone year. Rather, Arbuthnot concluded, divine providence had ordained an excess of male births over female births to offset a higher male death rate and thus ensure equal proportions of adult males and females. The idea of "an omnipresent activating deity who maintains mean sta- tistical values" formed the foundation of much of the statistics of the 18th century (Eisenhart and Birnbaum


We shall see that there are additional isolated in- stances of the use of non parametric methods during the closing years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century. But many present-day writers on non- parametrics consider the Hotelling and Pabst (1936)

paper on rank correlation to be the real start of the

discipline now generally known as nonparametric statis- tics. There are even some statisticians who would post- pone the start of nonparametrics until 1945, the year

• Gottfried E. Noether is Professor, Department of Statistics, Uni- versity of Connecticut, Storrs, cr 06268. This article is based on the Pfizer Colloquium Lecture at the University of Connecticut, presented by the author on April 28, 1983. The Pfizer Colloquium series is under the sponsorship of Pfizer Central Research.

Wilcoxon published his first paper dealing with what are now called the Wilcoxon one- and two-sample tests. The actual word nonparametric appeared for the first time in Wolfowitz (1942). In that paper, which is a report of his Ph.D. research, Wolfowitz looked at devel- opments in mathematical statistics and observed:

Most of these developments have this feature in common, that the distribution functions of the various stochastic variables which en- ter into their problems are assumed to be of known functional form, and the theories of estimation and of testing hypotheses are theories of estimation of and of testing hypotheses about, one or more parameters, finite in number, the knowledge of which would completely determine the various distribution functions involved. We shall refer to this situation for brevity as the parametric case, and denote the opposite situation, where the functional forms of the distributions are unknown, as the non-parametric case. (p. 264)

Wolfowitz then went on to explain:

The literature of theoretical statistics deals principally with the parametric case. The reasons for this are perhaps partly historic and partly the fact that interesting results could more readily be expected to follow from the assumption of normality. Another reason is that, while the parametric case was for long developed on an intuitive basis, progress in the nonparametric case requires the use of modern notions. However, the needs of theoretical com- pleteness and of practical research require the development of the theory of the non-parametric case. (p. 265)

It seems clear from this quotation that Wolfowitz's main reason for adding the term nonparametric to the statistical vocabulary was to call attention to the need for research in a new field. Indeed, the second part of Wolfowitz's paper constituted an attempt to apply the likelihood ratio principle, which Neyman and Pearson had proposed 10 years earlier for the solution of para- metric problems, to the nonparametric case. In retro- spect the attempt was not very successful. Seven years later, while reviewing nonparametric inference at the first Berkeley Symposium, Wolfowitz (1949) observed that a small beginning had been made but that as yet no general theory of nonparametric tests existed. General acceptance of the term nonparametric was rather slow. During the 1940's only a few mathematical statisticians at Columbia and Princeton Universities used it in papers published almost exclusively in the

Annals of Mathematical Statistics. The first use of the term in the Journal of the American Statistical Associ-

ation seems to be in Noether (1949a). Soon after Wolfowitz called attention to nonpara- metrics, Scheffe (1943) responded with a paper that not only proposed a theoretical framework for the develop- ment of non parametric theory but also provided a fairly complete list of then-existing procedures that could be called nonparametric. This is how Scheffe viewed nonparametric hypothesis testing and estimation in 1943. He discussed hypothesis

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testing under five headings: goodness of fit, random- ness, the problem of two samples, independence, and the analysis of variance. Under goodness of fit there were Pearson's chi-squared criterion of 1900 and the Kolmogorov statistic of the early 1930's. The principal tools for testing randomness in a series of observations were runs of various kinds. Among the two-sample tests mentioned by Scheffe-s-in addition to Pearson's chi- squared-were Pitman's randomization test based on the statistic y - x, the Wald-Wolfowitz run test, and the Smirnov test. For testing independence of two vari- ables, statisticians could choose between the Spearman rank correlation test and Pitman's randomization test based on the Pearson correlation coefficient. Kendall's tau was mentioned but dismissed with the remark that it did not seem to offer any practical advantages over Spearman rho. Under the analysis of variance label, Scheffe mentioned only the analysis of randomized blocks. In addition to Fisher's sign test for the com- parison of two treatments, Scheffe noted Pitman's randomization test and Friedman's rank analysis test. Scheffe's discussion of nonparametric estimation was considerably shorter than the discussion of hypothesis testing. Before getting down to details, Scheffe found it necessary to define estimation in the nonparametric case. I may be reading too much into Scheffe's words, but I sense some uneasiness on his part in using the term nonparametric in connection with estimation. This is how he led up to estimation:

Let ebe a real number determined by a distribution F (a functional

of F). Thus e might be e would be defined for

We shall not call ea parameter in order to avoid confusion with the

parametric case. (p. 320)

the mean of the distribution, in which case all distributions possessing a first moment.

Scheffe clearly recognized a potential problem with the term nonparametric. I shall say more about this prob-

lem later on. By 1943 the subject of point estimation had received practically no attention from the non parametric view- point. Scheffe simply mentioned that the ideas of un- biasedness and consistency of point estimates carried over from the parametric to the nonparametric case without change. He added that under very general con- ditions, the sample median was a consistent estimate of the population median. Confidence intervals had fared only slightly better than point estimation. Scheffe mentioned only three problems: confidence intervals for the median of a pop- ulation, confidence intervals for the difference of two medians, and confidence limits for an unknown distri- bution function.

a population median

bounded by two order statistics was proposed by Thompson (1936). For the difference of two medians, Scheffe proposed an interval based on separate con- fidence intervals for the two medians; but he added that the procedure was not very efficient. Alternatively, in the case of a shift model, Pitman's randomization test for the two-sample problem furnished a confidence in- terval for the median difference. Ten years later Lincoln


confidence interval for

Moses proposed the intuitively simplest of all possible intervals, one that was bounded by two appropriately chosen sample differences, Y - x. The problem of confidence limits for a cumulative distribution function was formulated and solved by Wald and Wolfowitz (1939). It is not generally realized that Wald and Wolfowitz considered much more gen- eral confidence regions than the confidence band that results from inverting the Kolmogorov goodness of fit criterion. But the need to invert an (n + 1)-dimensional matrix to calculate confidence coefficients hindered the practical exploitation of these general results. When Wald and Wolfowitz wrote their paper in 1939, they were not aware of the 1933 paper by Kolmogorov that gave the asymptotic distribution of the Kolmogorov sta- tistic. On the other hand, there is no evidence that Kolmogorov had recognized the possibility of inverting his goodness of fit statement to produce a confidence band prior to the Wald and Wolfowitz paper. The problem of nonparametric estimation that re- ceived the most attention during the early 1940's was the problem of distribution-free tolerance intervals. The underlying problem had been posed by Shewhart, an engineer at the Bell Telephone Laboratories. For the one-dimensional case, the problem was solved by Wilks (1942) with the help of order statistics. An utterly sim- ple but ingenious idea by Wald (1943) made it possible to use the Wilks approach with multivariate data as well. It is interesting to note that most present-day writers on nonparametrics do not even mention toler- ance intervals. The bibliography attached to Scheffe's survey paper included 58 titles. We can gain an idea of the rapid growth of nonparametrics during subsequent years by looking at the bibliography of Savage (1953, 1962). The first edition of this bibliography, published 10 years after the Scheffe survey, had 999 entries; a second edi- tion, published nine years after the first edition, con- tained about 3,000 titles. No further editions of this useful bibliography were published, and I am unaware of any other comprehensive literature counts. My personal initiation into nonparametrics occurred in the fall of 1946, when Wolfowitz offered at Columbia University what must have been one of the first courses (if not the first ever) in nonparametric statistics. Two years later I had the additional good fortune to be able to attend the guest lectures that Pitman gave at Col- umbia University. My lifelong interest in nonparamet- rics dates from these Wolfowitz and Pitman lectures. Let me look at these two sets of lectures in some detail. On the whole, Wolfowitz covered the material mentioned in the Scheffe survey, supplementing it with new results that he and Wald had obtained in the mean- time. One particular such result stands out in my mind:

Condition W for the asymptotic normality of linear forms under randomization (Wald and Wolfowitz 1944). Asymptotic normality of relevant test statistics under the null hypothesis had been taken for granted all along. But earlier arguments had usually relied merely on the study of the first four moments of the test statis-

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tic. Now, by checking that the coefficients of the linear form and the observations over which randomization occurred satisfied a simple condition, it became possi- ble to establish rigorously that the distribution of the test statistic tended to normality with increasing sample size. The Spearman rank correlation coefficient offered a striking example of the power of the theorem. Hotel- ling and Pabst (1936) had provided a lengthy proof of the asymptotic normality of Spearman rho, but with the Wald-Wolfowitz theorem it was only necessary to show that the integers from 1 to N satisfied Condition W, an almost obvious fact. Several years later I had another demonstration of the power of the Wald-Wolfowitz theorem. The emi- nent Dutch algebraist van der Waerden had proposed a two-sample test that used percentiles of the normal dis- tribution as weights. He did not succeed, however, in providing a generally valid proof of the asymptotic nor- mality of his test statistic. As I pointed out to him, it was only necessary to show that the percentiles of the nor- mal distribution satisfied Condition W, a result that followed immediately from the fact that the normal dis- tribution had finite moments of all orders. In Noether (1949b) I further weakened Condition W. This weaker condition, after further simplification, now plays an important role in the theory of linear rank statistics (Hajek 1961). Whereas Wolfowitz provided a broad survey of what was known in 1946 about nonparametrics, Pitman's lec- tures in 1948focused on how to compare nonparametric methods with corresponding normal theory methods and with each other. Most statisticians of that time took it for granted that non parametric methods were what they liked to call wasteful of information. As we shall see later, even Wilcoxon, who in 1945 proposed what has become the most widely used non parametric pro- cedure in existence, was convinced that his method did not use all the information available. But he was willing to make a sacrifice for the sake of simplicity. Wolfowitz's response to criticism implying the waste- fulness of nonparametric methods was straightforward and to the point: The only kind of information a non- parametric procedure is likely to waste is information that is unavailable anyway. In his Columbia University lectures, Pitman went a step further by proposing a quantitative measure for the comparison of two com- peting tests of the same hypothesis based on the com- parison of respective sample sizes that produce equal power for equal alternatives. This quantity is now known as Pitman relative efficiency. For the comparison of the sign test with the t test, the Pitman relative efficiency turned out to be a disap- pointingly low 2hr (or .64) if observations came from a normal population. A statistician who under such cir- cumstances uses the sign test in place of the t test indeed wastes one observation out of every three. But this is not the complete picture, as Pitman pointed out as early as 1948. Since statisticians use the t test not only when sampling normal populations, supplementary informa- tion is needed. For populations with sufficiently long

tails, the sign test may well require fewer observations than the t test to achieve a prescribed power. For exam- ple, for double exponential distributions the Pitman efficiency of the sign test relative to the t test is 2, and a statistician who uses the t test rather than the sign test actually wastes one out of every two observations. For the one- and two-sample Wilcoxon tests, com- pared with the corresponding t tests, the Pitman effi- ciency turned out to be an amazingly high 3hr (or .955) in the case of normal populations. Even more sur- prisingly, whatever the underlying distribution, the effi- ciency of the Wilcoxon tests relative to the t tests is never less than .864 and is actually greater than 1 for populations with only slightly longer tails than those for normal distributions. Far from wasting information, in many practical sampling situations the Wilcoxon tests make better use of the available information than the corresponding t tests, provide exact tests when the null hypothesis is true, and are considerably less sensitive to outliers among the observations than the t procedures. Pitman's concept of relative efficiency was just the tool I had needed in my thesis work on the effect of transformations of the observations in the Wald- Wolfowitz test of randomness. Due to circumstances, Pitman never published his work on relative efficiency beyond its inclusion in a restricted and highly prized set of lecture notes (Pitman 1948). As a result, Noether (1950), which resulted from my thesis, remained for several years the only generally available reference to Pitman efficiency. Noether (1955) extended Pitman's results and called attention to the close connection between Pitman test efficiency and classical estimation efficiency. As early as 1936, Hotelling and Pabst, in dealing with the Spear- man rank correlation coefficient, had used estimating efficiency as a measure of testing efficiency; and one year later Cochran (1937) used the same approach for comparing the sign test with the t test. But none of these statisticians ever elaborated on what they meant by test- ing efficiency, nor did they go beyond normal popula- tions for their comparisons. It was Pitman's approach that permitted the first realistic evaluation of non- parametric tests of hypotheses. Fifteen years later, Leh- mann (1963) completed the picture by showing that Pitman efficiency also provided the information re- quired for the comparison of competing confidence in- terval procedures. Thus starting in the late 1930's, a relatively small group of theoretical statisticians were seriously inter- ested in establishing firm foundations for a new branch of statistics, which became known as nonparametric sta- tistics. Unrelated to these efforts, and in some cases preceding them by many years, applied scientists in var- ious fields of research attempted to get away from the restraints of the normal distribution. Some of these re- searchers were motivated by the conscious realization that methods based on the normality assumption might lead to misleading conclusions or might otherwise be inappropriate, and others, simply by a desire to reduce computational drudgery. Galton's preference for the

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. the rank correlation coefficient in in s introduction of

1904 were early ex-

. parametric procedure is the two-sar most t~plcallynon-

Many years ago Cuthbert Daniel tol nple WIlcoxon test.



thing simpler. When he proposed W s lo?king for some-

IS no.w k~own as

of greater generality but, rather, ~d not think m terms computational ease. He was even Vl~ ~erms of greater alty for this greater simplicity, as (l1hng to pay a pen-

the Wilcoxon two-sample test, he

t statistic after another and wa dgery of computing

median in the 1880's and Spearrna , .

amples of such inclinations. To a great many statisticians, the

simply been fed up with the

dru d me that Wilco~on

di hat

the following statement (Wilcoxon oecomes clear from


It is not always realized that there are ava methods which are quite useful in interpreilable rapid approximate ments, even though these approximate metmg the results of experi- the information contained in the data. (fthods do not utilize fully



To the best of my knowledge, Vv,.

. not adopt the term nonparametric ilcoxon himself did tially considered to be rapid approxi for what. h~ essen- cedures until many years later. But .mate statistical pro- term nonparametric became synon/ or man.y others the

rough-and-ready, and quick-and-d~ousWIth shortcu~,

true that when Tukey and Wallis sllrty methods. It IS ready and quick-and-dirty methods poke o~ roug?-and- to express a derogatory judgment.' they.dId not mten?

Walhs (1952) put It

this way:


Quick-and-dirty, or rough-and-ready, tes test. It is certainly quick and ready, and it ts are typified by the sign for publication people usually prefer SOl is rough and dirty in that though I am sure that this is often supernething more elaborate, fluous. (p. 35)

. the rough-and-ready and qUick_anltls~IClanS, however, to reflect reality, and throughout tlj-dlrty ~abelsbega,n

nonparametric methods were prirr

~950sand 1960 s

ersatz and make-do. It is unfortunalanly thought of as book-length treatments of nonpar t e tha~the principal that period-Siegel (1956) and theametnc methods of volume Walsh (1968)-were ineft m~nUI~ent~1thr~e­ this general impression. Only durilectlve in dispelling years has there been some evidence 1g the past 10 or 15 in this attitude, though even now tl: of a gradual chan?e ticians who seem to think that non lere are many statts- are inferior and do not deserve to parametric methods normal theory methods. oe put on a par with

In the minds of many practicing sts .



One of the most attractive feature


methods, so it is not surprising th~many of the bas~c ideas occurred to researchers long it some of the baSIC known under their present nam before they became

pointed out that the scoring schemes. Kr~skal (1957) dall rank correlation coefficient il on WhICh the Ken- early as 1897 by the German psychi ba~ed was used as other German psychologist and peJloglst Fechner. An- proposed the Mann-Whitney versjdagogue, De,uchler,


ered to my great surprise that the e time ago I dISCOV-




of~sof nonparametri~s

test in 1914. And som on. of the Wl1~oxon



erman agronoml~t

f the nonparametnc

Behrens was an early supporter 0


approach. It is ironic that in the statistical literature Behrens's name should be inseparably associated with the Behrens-Fisher problem. Elsewhere (Noether 1979), I pointed out that Behrens himself did not seem to put much faith in the solution that he proposed in 1929for what is now called the Behrens-Fisher problem and that became the basis of the celebrated Neyman- Fisher controversy. Behrens certainly did not have similar doubts about the desirability of developing what are now called non- parametric methods. He must have been one of the first scientists to realize clearly the limitations of standard normal theory procedures. This is what he had to say in


The arithmetic mean and the standard deviation have gained the widest acceptance for characterizing a set of observations. The leading position of these two statistical measures is presumably connected with the fact that many observation systems follow near- ly normal distributions. If the normal error function is appropriate, the arithmetic mean is the most advantageous measure of central- ity and the standard deviation is the most advantageous measure of accuracy. But there are situations in which the distribution law has no similarity to the Gaussian law of error, and it is therefore important to have methods of data analysis which make no specific assumption about the distribution law. Then the only usable mea- sure of centrality is the median. (p. 77)









In order to ascertain whether two sets of observations come from the same population, for normal error laws, we find the difference of arithmetic means and the standard deviation of the difference. But if we are dealing with populations of unknown distribution laws, we cannot use statistical measures that depend on the actual size of the objects, but should use measures that essentially depend on the relative position of the objects. (p. 80)

Rarely do we find statements as unequivocal as these, even in present-day nonparametric literature. What, then, did Behrens propose to put in place of the customary t tests? For the one-sample problem, he proposed a statistic A equal to the number of steps between the sample median and the hypothetical popu- lation median, where a step was defined as the passage from one observation to a neighboring observation. Thus the statistic A was simply a linear function of the sign test statistic. Behrens was primarily interested in hypothesis testing, so his remark that "the measure A indicates bounds within which the true population me- dian presumably lies" (p. 80) almost escapes notice. There is not much doubt that Behrens proposed a con- fidence interval for the population median whose end- points are two symmetrically positioned order statistics, to use present-day terminology. To appreciate this re- sult fully, one must remember that Neyman's first paper on confidence intervals did not appear until 1934 and that the generally accepted reference to confidence in- tervals for a population median is Thompson (1936). Behrens also proposed a solution for the two-sample problem. Generalizing his one-sample statistic, he de- fined a two-sample statistic based on the number of steps between the two sample medians. This statistic is a simple linear function of the number of observations

176 ©

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in one of the samples that exceed the common median (Noether 1974). Behrens thus anticipated by some 15 years the median test. Let me conclude these reflections on nonparametrics with some final comments. I suggested earlier that in 1943 Scheffe already seemed to feel uneasy about the then newly introduced term nonparametric. Five years later Pitman, in his Columbia University lectures, was considerably more outspoken about his misgivings con- cerning the term. In his introductory lecture, he spoke about inference problems encountered in practice:

Often we have no knowledge of the nature of the population

distribution except what is supplied by the sample

have been devised to deal with such cases

ing them and applying them we usually do not start from an as- sumption that the chance variable has a distribution function of known form but involving certain unknown parameters, they have been called nonparametric tests; but the name is not a good one

and it is to be hoped that someone will soon think of a much better

We can use these tests to estimate parameters and so test hypotheses concerning parameters. (Pitman 1948, p. 1)


Valid tests

Because in develop-

We now know that Pitman's hope has remained un- fulfilled. In 1967, I raised the issue of more appropriate terminology in a letter to the editor of The American Statistician (Noether 1967). There was some reader sup- port for the idea of change, but no really viable alterna- tives were proposed. Several readers suggested the term distribution-free. In my opinion, however, distribution- free does not fill the bill. Nonparametric confidence intervals are distribution-free provided underlying pop- ulations are continuous. Nonparametric tests are distribution-free, but only under the null hypothesis and, again, if the underlying populations are continu- ous. But nonparametric point estimates are not distribution-free. The term distribution-free has its le- gitimate place in the statistical vocabulary, but it is not sufficiently broad to cover what is now loosely called nonparametrics. Since it is not very likely that one of these days, somebody will propose more suitable termi- nology, I should like to propose a different solution. Is it really necessary to have a separate name for what we now generally call nonparametrics? The term non- parametric may have some historical significance and meaning for theoretical statisticians, but it only serves to confuse applied statisticians. Following the general mistrust of anything non- parametric during the 1950's and 1960's, there are now indications that a growing number of statisticians are willing to accept nonparametric procedures as legiti- mate alternatives to the classical normal-theory meth- ods. Almost every recent introductory statistics text contains a chapter on nonparametric methods. Un- fortunately the treatment is frequently one-sided and superficial. The main emphasis is on a few well-known nonparametric tests of hypotheses, thus strengthening the widely held misconception that nonparametrics is primarily concerned with hypothesis testing. The fact that location, scale, and regression parameters can be estimated non parametrically by both point estimates and confidence intervals is hardly ever mentioned. In addition, the chapter on nonparametrics is often placed

at the end of a book, and there is almost no attempt to integrate the material on nonparametrics with the cor- responding normal-theory material. Dropping the non- parametric altogether from the statistical vocabulary would facilitate treating statistical methods as a unit instead of erecting an artificial barrier between classical methods and something called nonparametric methods, whatever they might be. My interest in nonparametrics dates from my graduate-student days at Columbia University. Over the years, however, the direction of my interest has gradually changed from the theoretical to the ped- agogical. I am convinced that nonparametric methods are a more appropriate basis on which to develop an introductory statistics course than the classical normal- theory methods. Both conceptually and theoretically, the nonparametric approach is fat simpler than the clas- sical approach (Noether 1982). In this day and age, when numeracy is as important as literacy and more and more people are faced with the necessity of coping with quantitative information, it is important to develop sta- tistics courses in which the mathematical aspects do not overwhelm the statistical content of the course. The fact that over the years scientists like Arbuthnot, Fechner, Deuchler, Spearman, Behrens, Wilcoxon, and others whose primary interest was in some field of sci- ence rather than in mathematics or statistics discovered and rediscovered certain basic nonparametric ap- proaches attests to the conceptual simplicity and spon- taneity of these approaches. The same can hardly be said of the competing normal-theory methods, which presuppose a sound background in probability theory for their justification. Why is it, then, that the ultimate achievement of an introductory statistics course is so often perceived to be the discussion of the one- and two-sample t tests? How often have I been asked, after outlining my nonparametric version of the introductory statistics course, But where is the t test? How can you let a student go into the wide world without ever having encountered a single t statistic? Perhaps if we stop di- viding statistics into parametrics and nonparametrics, this kind of prejudice will disappear. Statistics will be the better for it!

[Received May 1983. Revised December 1983. J


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