Tuesday, November 6, 2007

What you measure is what you get: learning from artists

Heard a charming and instructive story on NPR yesterday morning about Auguste Escoffier the famed 19th century chef who invented veal stock and identified a secret kind of deliciousness that no one knew existed. If you missed it, you can check out the summary here.

Up until and even after Escoffier’s invention, most people agreed with Democitus’ (and later Plato and Aristotle’s) assertation that there were four basic tastes: Sweet, Salty, Sour and Bitter. But as Jonah Lehrer (author of Proust was a Neuroscientist) writes, Escoffier sauce seemed to defy this classification. Everyone agreed it was delicious and made everything it touched more delicious, but it wasn’t sweet or salty or sour or bitter. So what was it? Maybe everyone was just imagining it?

It took the work of a Japanese chemist, among others, to identify and isolate the missing ingredient which turned out to be what we now call glutamate, a chemical compound is created by the breakdown of organic matter breaks down, (think cured meats and sauteed vegetables) and for which our tongues have special receptors.

Jonah’s point (and the one he explores in his book) is that artists (and writers and chefs) who examine and describe human experience can sometimes discover things that scientists don’t identify until much later. It's a nice inspiring tale about the power of artistic imagination. And the need to balance verified and testable facts with evidence of our own experience.

But I hope it doesn't lead to people to dismiss the power of analysis or scientific method as fatally flawed. The biggest problem with certain scientific research methods isn’t that they are inaccurate, or even that they are incomplete, but that they pretend to be complete or we forget (overwhelmed by their authority, statistical or otherwise) that they are incomplete. Just because we've haven't found a way to isolate and measure something doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

What you measure is what you get is an old cautionary saying in research circles. And it's particularly important to keep in mind for those of us suspended between creative and analytical fields. Practically speaking, this means a few different things:
1) You should always keep in mind what your research is measuring and what it's not
2) you shouldn't rely on one piece of research, say one big survey, but draw data from multiple sources and methods
3) We should all be experimenting with our research as well, trying to measure new elements of consumer experience with new methods and questions.


Beecham said...

I have to confess that I resist the argument that artists are intuitive scientists, psychologists, chemists, neuroscientists who often beat the scientist to the punch (an argument you don't linger on, but imply in the setup and title). It's just that I hate to turn art into just another data set, just another piece of "evidence" for some theory. Not to even mention that tricky little problem that as fiction, as in the Proust example, its claim to describe anything about reality, to make truth-claims about our environment, is hardly straightforward. I don't see the story Lehrer tells as a tale of the power of artistic imagination, but rather see his tale as a sign of an impoverished understanding of the concept of art and the artist.

Anyway, these thoughts are all just a way of prefacing my thoughts about how your last two posts speak to each other: this one on the challenges of relying single-mindedly on certain types of measurement and the previous post on the difficulty of getting your "new-world branding ideas" implemented.

Perhaps we can add to your "What you measure is what you get" another traditional saying, "You can lead a horse to water but you can’t force it to drink."

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