Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Qualified v. Quantified

Today a random grad student stopped by my office to ask what he described as a random question. He said he was going around asking various people a particular question, and even though my research is "not quantitative" and I "probably never use equations", since my door was open, he thought he'd ask me his question anyway. He was asking people which equation editor they use.

I am "not quantitative"? Those are fighting words in some fields..

I did not challenge the student to a duel or shove my equation-filled reprints in his face; I just answered his question, simply telling him which equation editor I use. He was surprised that I use equation editors and have opinions about them, but he didn't comment further.

Not all of my papers have equations, but some do, including a few very recent ones. Since this student has clearly not read my papers, I wonder what about me screams "not quantitative" to him. Of course I have a hypothesis, but then, I just happen to be wearing my gender lenses today.

To many, being quantitative shows that you are a serious, rigorous scientist. I was discussing this with one of my students recently in relation to the main goals of his research. He said that a main goal was to quantify things. I said "Why?" and he seemed surprised, as if quantifying things was an end in itself. This turned into a wide-ranging and interesting conversation about his research and future directions for his work, including discussion of where quantifying things fits into the general scheme of his work.

Another frequent quantitative topic is something I call my you can always get a number speech. This speech has several parts: (1) You can always get a number.. but does it mean anything? and (2) You can always get a number, but even if it means something.. what does it mean? (i.e., the number itself is not an end in itself, you have to think about it).

It is surely a sign of age that I have these little speeches that I find myself giving over and over. There is probably an equation I could write (if I ever did such things) that relates my age in any given year to the frequency with which I give these speeches. Or something.

16 comments:

Josh said...

Oh yes. The qualitative / quantitative thing can really explode around here sometimes.

That said, what equation editor do you use? I'm curious because I can't get fricken latex to work on my macbook pro.

Female Science Professor said...

Maybe you are not doing the secret LaTeX chant before attempting to set up your equations.

Josh said...

I sacrificed a goat and everything!

Well, I'll keep at it. Thanks!

Schlupp said...

On the other hand, I often hear 'that's just quantitative' for research that the speaker does not consider 'transformative'.

Female Science Professor said...

josh - Not a goat! That is the absolute wrong thing to sacrifice if you want to use LaTeX. If you sacrificed a goat, your only option now is to find numbers and Greek symbols in newspapers, cut them out carefully with scissors, and paste them with a gluestick into a hard copy of your paper, then scan the pages. Alas.

Susan B. Anthony said...

Oh, crap. I knew I was going about this LaTeX thing all wrong.

Anonymous said...

Being a mathematician, I commonly joke with people that I don't "do" numbers. (Granted, I usually mention this when they want me to calculate the tip at a restaurant.) The assumptions people make are always interesting. I must admit it's difficult for me to imagine doing hard science without some kind of quantitative information.

Josh - I use "TexShop" quite happily on my Macs. http://www.uoregon.edu/~koch/texshop/

Anonymous said...

"Being a mathematician, I commonly joke with people that I don't "do" numbers."

It's like people who expect me to fix their computers because I have a PhD in Computer Science. I get funny looks when I say I don't do windows, though.

Mikael said...

Being a mathematician, the default excuse whenever I actually do calculate something incorrectly is, naturally, "Oh, I don't do arithmetic anyway, so..."

And it's gotten to the point where my friends preemptively excuse me from numerical tasks. ;)

As for typesetting in general (and not only because it makes the maths all Shiny!), I have been using LaTeX since second year high school (second to last year of Gymnasium for those who actually speak European ;) - and had my English teacher ask me, with awe in her voice, what ever I did do to my essays to make them look So Damn Good.

She started learning LaTeX after that chat too.

Doug Natelson said...

Any chance that the student meant that you're not a theorist?

LaTeX is the way to go. Josh, I second TexShop. Works great on my Mac Mini at home. I prefer to use aquaemacs as my editor, though, rather than the built-in one.

Ms.PhD said...

I like quantitation but definitely not for its own sake.

Schlupp - I love that quantitative can be used as a put-down. In my field they say 'that's just descriptive'. Yeeearrgh. Kiss of death. And instead of 'transformative' they say 'revolutionary.'

My latest pet peeve is people who think graphs are not just more powerful, but also more valid than the primary data they're based on. I mean graphs are only as good as the data, and graphs can be faked a lot more easily!

I like the Einstein quote the best: "Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted."

I also like LaTeX but thus far have never needed to worry about typesetting equations badly enough to debate whether another tool would be better.

Josh, it should work on a mac, mine works fine!

Badbug said...

Hmmm, I do wonder what about you might seem non-quantitative. Maybe....women can't be quantitative? I (being female) was pondering that as I got reviews back on a paper where a lazy-ass cranky reviewer dinged us for not providing quantitation for a number of images we showed (in each and every case quantitation was shown in the next panel of the same figure. Huh? Not even sure how to respond to this sort of comment without my head exploding. You showed saintly restraint with the random student, IMO.

Anonymous said...

OK--so what is quantitative about using an equation editor? Or is that your point?

Schlupp said...

badbug, if there is still a chance the paper might be accepted, you have to be polite, so:
- Leave everything as it is.
- Write to the ref. that you have 'improved the captions in order clarify the issue.'

If this doesn't work, get a voodoo-set.

Josh said...

It worked this time! I guess my intonation on the secret LaTeX chant wasn't quite right, which is embarrassing for a music major like myself. And no goats required!

Well, I did have to proselytize before the gods to get them to forgive my earlier indiscretion involving such a certain sacrifice.

Thanks guys. In all seriousness, I hadn't know about TexShop and had been trying to compile from source.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I'm impressed that you were able to bite your tongue. I don't think I would have been so quiet; I think I could learn a lot from your restraint!