# 5.8: Handling Missing Values

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There’s one last topic that I want to discuss briefly in this chapter, and that’s the issue of missing data. Real data sets very frequently turn out to have missing values: perhaps someone forgot to fill in a particular survey question, for instance. Missing data can be the source of a lot of tricky issues, most of which I’m going to gloss over. However, at a minimum, you need to understand the basics of handling missing data in R.

## single variable case

Let’s start with the simplest case, in which you’re trying to calculate descriptive statistics for a single variable which has missing data. In R, this means that there will be NA values in your data vector. Let’s create a variable like that:

> partial <- c(10, 20, NA, 30)

Let’s assume that you want to calculate the mean of this variable. By default, R assumes that you want to calculate the mean using all four elements of this vector, which is probably the safest thing for a dumb automaton to do, but it’s rarely what you actually want. Why not? Well, remember that the basic interpretation of NA is “I don’t know what this number is”. This means that 1 + NA = NA: if I add 1 to some number that I don’t know (i.e., the NA) then the answer is also a number that I don’t know. As a consequence, if you don’t explicitly tell R to ignore the NA values, and the data set does have missing values, then the output will itself be a missing value. If I try to calculate the mean of the partial vector, without doing anything about the missing value, here’s what happens:

> mean( x = partial )
[1] NA

To fix this, all of the descriptive statistics functions that I’ve discussed in this chapter (with the exception of cor() which is a special case I’ll discuss below) have an optional argument called na.rm, which is shorthand for “remove NA values”. By default, na.rm = FALSE, so R does nothing about the missing data problem. Let’s try setting na.rm = TRUE and see what happens:

When calculating sums and means when missing data are present (i.e., when there are NA values) there’s actually an additional argument to the function that you should be aware of. This argument is called na.rm, and is a logical value indicating whether R should ignore (or “remove”) the missing data for the purposes of doing the calculations. By default, R assumes that you want to keep the missing values, so unless you say otherwise it will set na.rm = FALSE. However, R assumes that 1 + NA = NA: if I add 1 to some number that I don’t know (i.e., the NA) then the answer is also a number that I don’t know. As a consequence, if you don’t explicitly tell R to ignore the NA values, and the data set does have missing values, then the output will itself be a missing value. This is illustrated in the following extract:

> mean( x = partial, na.rm = TRUE )
[1] 20

Notice that the mean is 20 (i.e., 60 / 3) and not 15. When R ignores a NA value, it genuinely ignores it. In effect, the calculation above is identical to what you’d get if you asked for the mean of the three-element vector c(10, 20, 30).

As indicated above, this isn’t unique to the mean() function. Pretty much all of the other functions that I’ve talked about in this chapter have an na.rm argument that indicates whether it should ignore missing values. However, its behaviour is the same for all these functions, so I won’t waste everyone’s time by demonstrating it separately for each one.

## Missing values in pairwise calculations

I mentioned earlier that the cor() function is a special case. It doesn’t have an na.rm argument, because the story becomes a lot more complicated when more than one variable is involved. What it does have is an argument called use which does roughly the same thing, but you need to think little more carefully about what you want this time. To illustrate the issues, let’s open up a data set that has missing values, parenthood2.Rdata. This file contains the same data as the original parenthood data, but with some values deleted. It contains a single data frame, parenthood2:

> load( "parenthood2.Rdata" )
> print( parenthood2 )
dan.sleep baby.sleep dan.grump day
1      7.59         NA        56   1
2      7.91      11.66        60   2
3      5.14       7.92        82   3
4      7.71       9.61        55   4
5      6.68       9.75        NA   5
6      5.99       5.04        72   6
BLAH BLAH BLAH

If I calculate my descriptive statistics using the describe() function

> describe( parenthood2 )
var   n  mean    sd median trimmed   mad   min    max    BLAH
dan.sleep    1  91  6.98  1.02   7.03    7.02  1.13  4.84   9.00    BLAH
baby.sleep   2  89  8.11  2.05   8.20    8.13  2.28  3.25  12.07    BLAH
dan.grump    3  92 63.15  9.85  61.00   62.66 10.38 41.00  89.00    BLAH
day          4 100 50.50 29.01  50.50   50.50 37.06  1.00 100.00    BLAH

we can see from the n column that there are 9 missing values for dan.sleep, 11 missing values for baby.sleep and 8 missing values for dan.grump.84 Suppose what I would like is a correlation matrix. And let’s also suppose that I don’t bother to tell R how to handle those missing values. Here’s what happens:

> cor( parenthood2 )
dan.sleep baby.sleep dan.grump day
dan.sleep          1         NA        NA  NA
baby.sleep        NA          1        NA  NA
dan.grump         NA         NA         1  NA
day               NA         NA        NA   1

Annoying, but it kind of makes sense. If I don’t know what some of the values of dan.sleep and baby.sleep actually are, then I can’t possibly know what the correlation between these two variables is either, since the formula for the correlation coefficient makes use of every single observation in the data set. Once again, it makes sense: it’s just not particularly helpful.

To make R behave more sensibly in this situation, you need to specify the use argument to the cor() function. There are several different values that you can specify for this, but the two that we care most about in practice tend to be "complete.obs" and "pairwise.complete.obs". If we specify use = "complete.obs", R will completely ignore all cases (i.e., all rows in our parenthood2 data frame) that have any missing values at all. So, for instance, if you look back at the extract earlier when I used the head() function, notice that observation 1 (i.e., day 1) of the parenthood2 data set is missing the value for baby.sleep, but is otherwise complete? Well, if you choose use = "complete.obs" R will ignore that row completely: that is, even when it’s trying to calculate the correlation between dan.sleep and dan.grump, observation 1 will be ignored, because the value of baby.sleep is missing for that observation. Here’s what we get:

> cor(parenthood2, use = "complete.obs")
dan.sleep baby.sleep   dan.grump         day
dan.sleep   1.00000000  0.6394985 -0.89951468  0.06132891
baby.sleep  0.63949845  1.0000000 -0.58656066  0.14555814
dan.grump  -0.89951468 -0.5865607  1.00000000 -0.06816586
day         0.06132891  0.1455581 -0.06816586  1.00000000

The other possibility that we care about, and the one that tends to get used more often in practice, is to set use = "pairwise.complete.obs". When we do that, R only looks at the variables that it’s trying to correlate when determining what to drop. So, for instance, since the only missing value for observation 1 of parenthood2 is for baby.sleep R will only drop observation 1 when baby.sleep is one of the variables involved: and so R keeps observation 1 when trying to correlate dan.sleep and dan.grump. When we do it this way, here’s what we get:

> cor(parenthood2, use = "pairwise.complete.obs")
dan.sleep  baby.sleep    dan.grump          day
dan.sleep   1.00000000  0.61472303 -0.903442442 -0.076796665
baby.sleep  0.61472303  1.00000000 -0.567802669  0.058309485
dan.grump  -0.90344244 -0.56780267  1.000000000  0.005833399
day        -0.07679667  0.05830949  0.005833399  1.000000000

Similar, but not quite the same. It’s also worth noting that the correlate() function (in the lsr package) automatically uses the “pairwise complete” method:

> correlate(parenthood2)

CORRELATIONS
============
- correlation type:  pearson
- correlations shown only when both variables are numeric

dan.sleep baby.sleep dan.grump    day
dan.sleep          .      0.615    -0.903 -0.077
baby.sleep     0.615          .    -0.568  0.058
dan.grump     -0.903     -0.568         .  0.006
day           -0.077      0.058     0.006      .

The two approaches have different strengths and weaknesses. The “pairwise complete” approach has the advantage that it keeps more observations, so you’re making use of more of your data and (as we’ll discuss in tedious detail in Chapter 10 and it improves the reliability of your estimated correlation. On the other hand, it means that every correlation in your correlation matrix is being computed from a slightly different set of observations, which can be awkward when you want to compare the different correlations that you’ve got.

So which method should you use? It depends a lot on why you think your values are missing, and probably depends a little on how paranoid you are. For instance, if you think that the missing values were “chosen” completely randomly85 then you’ll probably want to use the pairwise method. If you think that missing data are a cue to thinking that the whole observation might be rubbish (e.g., someone just selecting arbitrary responses in your questionnaire), but that there’s no pattern to which observations are “rubbish” then it’s probably safer to keep only those observations that are complete. If you think there’s something systematic going on, in that some observations are more likely to be missing than others, then you have a much trickier problem to solve, and one that is beyond the scope of this book.

This page titled 5.8: Handling Missing Values is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Danielle Navarro via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.