Thursday, July 28, 2011

Quantitative vs. qualitative?

Ingrid and I had a discussion the other day about whether quantitative or qualitative data make a more lasting impression. As you might have guessed, I am more on the quantitative side, and Ingrid more on the qualitative side ;-) And me being me, I created a visual scenario about a result from Ingrid's thesis (the importance of deep community in successful conservation) that was applied in 100 new conservation efforts (or replicate experiments, without controls, though). Only in 1 application, however, did the new approach result in a successful, measurable, conservation result. 
In this scenario, the successful conservation effort was driven by charismatic, Tom Nudds-like figure (the face with the pony tail in the screenshot ;-), conservation officer. At the end of this study, I present the results at the usual scientific conferences, highlighting the success rate of only 1%, and thus the fact that our proposed importance of deep community is not as successful as we anticipated. At the same time, the conservation officer also hits the conference road, illustrating the success of her project that was built on our proposed mechanism. 

In this scenario, there is obviously a tension between quantitative (1%) and qualitative (the success story) data. Which one is most memorable, most true, most relevant? We are not out of that discussion yet, but we have another 4 years to work on that.

However, you can find examples of this everywhere once you are aware of this tension (and Ingrid's thesis is definitely making me aware of a lot of different things). Take for instance the collapse of the Rupert Murdoch empire. This is one of those rare feel-good stories, and lots of interesting stuff has been reported about it. Two of these reports stood out for me in the context of qualitative versus quantitative.

  • The second one is an opinion article by Tabatha Southey in the Globe and Mail (you should read all her opinion articles, very insightful). She compares the behaviour of Murdoch-owned newspaper to Speedy, a robot from an Asimov story that finds a pool with some essential elements for his survival.
"Speedy's problem, it's revealed, is that two of the Laws of Robotics programmed into him are contradicting one another. One of the laws, the need to protect himself, has locked horns with another law, the one that compels him to perform his mission. It's almost as if he were a news outlet covering its owner during an extremely embarrassing time.
Speedy is driven mad by the dilemma. He starts to sing Gilbert and Sullivan songs, ramble and spout non sequiturs, and he would have made a fine edition to the Wall Street Journal editorial board this week."
So now I have these two pieces of information dealing with the same issue, one qualitative, on quantitative. Which one is the most memorable, most true, most relevant? And if these questions are not relevant in this context, why are they relevant in the conservation context?

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