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Standard Deviation Estimation

Dan Goldstein gives a rule of thumb for getting standard deviations for various distributions:

Say you’ve got 30 numbers and a strong urge to estimate their standard deviation. But you’ve left your computer at home. Unless you’re really good at mentally squaring and summing, it’s pretty hard to compute a standard deviation in your head. But there’s a heuristic you can use:

Subtract the smallest number from the largest number and divide by four

Let’s call it the “range over four” heuristic. You could, and probably should, be skeptical. You could want to see how accurate the heuristic is. And you could want to see how the heuristic’s accuracy depends on the distribution of numbers you are dealing with.

Sometimes you just don’t have STDEV() available.