Quality over quantity

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” — Philippians 4:8

Ninety percent of everything is crud.” — Theodore Sturgeon [1]


I often think about quality and quantity. It’s so easy, particularly in America, to get sucked into substituting quantity for quality. For example, it’s how we eat. Striving for quality over quantity sounds good, but it’s not easy. It helps to have periodic reminders to go against the stream and pursue quality. Yesterday I got such a reminder at Edward Tufte’s one-day course in Houston.

The course emphasizes eliminating frills and administrative debris to make room for high quality displays of information. The course teaches and demonstrates a commitment to quality. At one point Tufte spoke more generally and more personally about pursuing quality over quantity.

He said most papers are not worth reading and that he learned early on to concentrate on the great papers, maybe one in 500, that are worth reading and rereading rather than trying to “keep up with the literature.” He also explained how over time he has concentrated more on showcasing excellent work than on criticizing bad work. You can see this in the progression from his first book to his latest. (Criticizing bad work is important too, but you’ll have to read his early books to find more of that. He won’t spend as much time talking about it in his course.) That reminded me of Jesse Robbins’ line: “Don’t fight stupid. You are better than that. Make more awesome.”

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[1] Sturgeon’s law is usually stated as “Ninety percent of everything is crap,” though that’s not what he said. The original quip was “Sure, 90% of science fiction is crud. That’s because 90% of everything is crud.”

12 thoughts on “Quality over quantity

  1. Look at what papers — in any subject — that still get referenced thirty years after they’re published. Quality surely trumps quantity.

    But then, look at the papers in the same field published last year. Which ones will be part of that golden set in another thirty years? We’ll find out by collectively reading, dissing, promoting and arguing about that whole stinking pile.

    Saying “I only read great papers” could be restated to say “I don’t want to help out finding out what papers are any good.”

  2. The part about focus on good work instead of criticism of poor work resonates with me.

    “The lips of knowledge are a precious jewel.” That and a hundred more proverbs suggest that quality words are more valuable than quantity words. We could waste our breath criticizing what’s wrong with the world.

    I think this kind of critique is only valuable when both parties have agreed beforetime on a pre-determined course, and critique is only required to point out that the ship has strayed off course and establish a better way to get back on, and stay on course.

  3. Janne: As far as saying “I don’t want to help out finding out what papers are any good,” I partially agree. I don’t want to sift through a lot of mediocre work looking for the good parts. (As Tufte puts it, “looking for diamonds in the sewer.”) Other people do. They want to stay on top of things and read everything they can in some narrow field. I’ll let them do that.

    But people who want to read the best papers help in the filtering process too. They may want to read only the best, but inevitably they’ll be disappointed. They then recommend the papers that really are great and help the cream rise to the top.

  4. In the case of the pottery instructor, you have quantity plus a filter. Generating a lot of ideas is the best way to have a good idea. And when you get past the generation stage, you have to work at quality.

  5. Everyone wants to create something great, but I think you have to be careful not to fall into the trap of “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” You can get so stuck on trying to achieve a piece of perfect work, that you never get anywhere at all. Also, many designs are iterative. You start out with a (good) first draft and then you can improve it.

  6. John:

    You raise some interesting issues that make me think, given how much time I spend criticizing things! I do think, though, that I and others have learned a lot from my criticisms. There’s some way in which good examples, as well as bad examples, can be helpful in developing and understanding general principles.

    It’s funny, though. In my blog and in my talks, I talk about stuff I like and stuff I don’t like. But in my books, just about all my examples are positive. We have very few negative examples, really none at all that I can think of (except for some of the examples in the “lying with statistics” chapter in the Teaching Statistics book). This suggests that I’m doing something different in my books than in my blogs and lectures.

  7. Criticizing what’s wrong is important. I learned a lot from Tufte’s early books that criticize bad graphics. And criticizing what’s bad helps you appreciate what’s good.

    One of my favorite negative examples is using a rainbow scale to indicate a scalar quantity such as depth. (See Tufte’s Sea of Japan maps.) Makes for a psychedelic mess that’s hard to interpret. I see that exact problem repeatedly. After seeing that, seeing a graphic with varying shades of one color looks so clear and peaceful.

    But if you spend too much time on the negative, you become tiring to read and you lose credibility. I could imagine someone like Tufte saying “I’ve pointed out what’s wrong and now I want to move on to focusing on what I think is right.”

  8. @Janne

    I wish that were true, but when I look at my own publications it just isn’t happening.

    Of my dozen or so refereed publications, the one with (by far) the most citations is one of the worst. It gets cited because (a) it was one of the first papers to apply method A to problem type B, and (b) it’s easy to beat with modern techniques and computing power. So it gets cited over and over by people wanting to make their own algorithm look good — missing the point that it was a dumb idea to use method A in the first place, and the correct response to my paper is not to do a better version of method A, but to tell people to use a better method.

    The very best paper I ever wrote is almost never cited. One of the runners up has never been cited at all (to my knowledge), despite being directly relevant to more recent published work that I’ve seen.

  9. I thought immediately of the book you linked (French Women Don’t Get Fat). Being married to a Frenchwoman, I have really come to appreciate the way French value quality over quantity: butter, cream, delicious crusty breads and pastries, good wine, small but very strong coffees, spicy mustard, more kinds of cheese than anyone could ever eat and lots of natural flavor, all savored one dish at a time, all in reasonable portions and all without countless between-meal snacks. That, and they walk everywhere.

  10. Certainly as we get distant from an era this is completely true. One of my aims is to go back and read some of the literary classics from the 19th century. Roughly, one might prioritize this as
    1. reading classics I’ve never read (e.g. David Copperfield)
    2. re-reading classics I read decades ago (e.g. Tale of Two Cities)
    3. reading secondary works.

    Given a finite length of life, there’s no likelihood or reason to get to #3.

    I’m less sure this works with current material (either literary or professional). For this material, I think an analogy to childrearing is appropriate: you can’t set out to spend quality time with your child. You spend time, and some of it turns out to be quality.

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