Microvariability detection in quasars: An astrostatistical problem
Microvariations probe the physics and internal structure of quasars. Unpredictability and small flux variations make this phenomenon elusive and difficult to detect. Variance based probes such as the C and F tests, or a combination of both, are popular methods to compare the light-curves of the quasar and a comparison star. Recently, detection claims in some studies depend on the agreement of the results of the C and F tests, or of two instances of the F-test, in rejecting the non-variation null hypothesis. However, the C-test is a non-reliable statistical procedure, the F-test is not robust, and the combination of tests with concurrent results is anything but a straightforward methodology. A priori Power Analysis calculations and post hoc analysis of Monte-Carlo simulations show excellent agreement for the Analysis of Variance test to detect microvariations, as well as the limitations of the F-test. Additionally, combined tests yield correlated probabilities that make the assessment of statistical significance unworkable. However, it is possible to include data from several field stars to enhance the power in a single F - test or ANOVA nested designs, increasing the reliability of the statistical analysis. These would be the preferred methodology when several comparison stars are available. These results show the importance of using adequate methodologies, and avoid inappropriate procedures that can jeopardize microvariability detections. Power analysis and Monte-Carlo simulations are useful tools for research planning, as they can reveal the robustness and reliability of different research approaches.