The real measurement debate

By Lucy Heady 2 July 2010

I really like numbers. A lot. If you want to persuade me of something don’t tell me a story, draw me a graph. I don’t think quantitative evidence is inherently better than qualitative; it’s just the way my mind works.

This preference for numbers means that I often get stuck in the middle of qualitative versus quantitative debates. It is incredible to me that this debate still continues, even die-hard numbers people like me know that their numbers are meaningless without qualitative context and richness. But I think I may have worked out why the battle continues.

The real argument is about objectivity versus bias.

The people who think that numbers are the answer accuse the story-lovers of cherry-picking case studies to prove their point. The qualitative experts accuse the numbers geeks of cutting the numbers to support their case. I often hear people say ‘you can say anything with numbers’. Well, you can say anything with words too.

The important thing about evidence of any kind is that it is presented honestly and without bias.

For the quant stuff, this means being transparent and open about how you collect your data, how you try to get data from everyone (not just the ones who like you!) and what data you haven’t included in your analysis. For the qual stuff this means picking people who are representative of your beneficiaries, not that one person whose life you turned around in a dramatic way but the ones you help a bit day in, day out and acknowledging all of the other influences they have in their lives.

So let’s start the real debate: how honest are you when you present you evidence? Have you ever fiddled the numbers or cherry picked your case study? Go on, get it off your chest…