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Multidimensional Scaling

One of the most important goals in visualizing data is to get a sense of how near or far points are from each other. Often, you can do this with a scatter plot. However, for some analyses, the data that you have might not be in the form of points at all, but rather in the form of pairwise similarities or dissimilarities between cases, observations, or subjects. There are no points to plot.

Even if your data are in the form of points rather than pairwise distances, a scatter plot of those data might not be useful. For some kinds of data, the relevant way to measure how near two points are might not be their Euclidean distance. While scatter plots of the raw data make it easy to compare Euclidean distances, they are not always useful when comparing other kinds of inter-point distances, city block distance for example, or even more general dissimilarities. Also, with a large number of variables, it is very difficult to visualize distances unless the data can be represented in a small number of dimensions. Some sort of dimension reduction is usually necessary.

Multidimensional scaling (MDS) is a set of methods that address all these problems. MDS allows you to visualize how near points are to each other for many kinds of distance or dissimilarity metrics and can produce a representation of your data in a small number of dimensions. MDS does not require raw data, but only a matrix of pairwise distances or dissimilarities.

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