Operational research: bridging theory and practice

Published May 17, 2015 · Estimated reading time: 2 minutes · Share your thoughts
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This is an excerpt from a longer Healthy Inference (Epidemiology student blog) to which I contributed, reflecting on a week-long Operational Research Methods course at McGill University.

The importance and challenges of publication in operational research – Marzieh Ghiasi (Epidemiology)

One of the interesting topics covered in the course was the important role that publication can play in operational research. In academia, for better or worse, the mantra ‘publish or perish’ exists in part because publications are a measure of productivity. In implementation settings, the objectives and pressures are different and publication is not a priority. In fact, projects are often are implemented by governments and agencies, without a strong empirical framework or post-hoc analysis– and the people doing the implementation may or may not be trained in constructing scientific publications. The course instructors highlighted how conducting operational research and publishing can play the role of providing an evidence-based road-map and dissemination tool. Consequently, the capacity to conduct operational research is built by not only by training people how to develop protocols, collect data, but also how to publish and do it well. The presenters gave the example of a course by The Union/MSF focused on developing these skills.

We had a hands-on overview of how to use EpiData, a free open software for systematic data entry ideal for use in constrained settings. As well, an overview of how the publication process works: for example, the often overlooked but important task of actually looking at and adhering to author guidelines before submitting a manuscript to a journal! One of the most interesting things I took away from the workshops was the idea of ‘inclusive authorship’ in operational research, which is critical in projects that involve dozens and dozens of people in design, implementation, data collection and analysis. The instructors recalled their own experiences of trying to chase authors and contributors down by email versus bringing dozens of people in a room over the course of a couple of days to get them to write a paper together (the latter works better!). Bringing 30-something people to write a paper is, of course, in itself an operational challenge. But, as this paper showcases, it is possible and should be done to ensure fairness and engagement.

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Peter Singer’s moral calculus of charity

Published May 07, 2015 · Estimated reading time: 4 minutes · Share your thoughts
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A while back I read a very intriguing op-ed in NYT by Princeton ethicist Peter Singer. The article, titled “Good Charity, Bad Charity”, argues that the decision to contribute to one charity versus another should be based on an “evidence-based approach” that “[offers] the most positive impact for your time and money”. As someone in public health, I thought this was a nicely laid out and pragmatic approach to decision making with limited resources. For example, as a high-impact or “good” charity, Singer gives the example of the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, a Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) -oriented organization. Learning about NTDs related issues for years, I’ve personally observed that a lot of the underpinning drivers in research or advocacy for NTDs appeals to people’s utilitarian sensibilities: You can impact the lives of millions of people in a truly meaningful way for very little (monetarily at least).

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Image created using public domain & creative commons licensed images: 1, 2, 3, 4.

However, what I think is a point that is really worth examining is the argument that Singer lays out in how we can “objectively” determine that by contributing to one initiative versus another that “we’ll be able to do more good”. Singer asks us to make a hypothetical choice between contributing to the creation of a new art museum wing, versus contributing to an organization working to reduce incidence of trachoma, a debilitating NTD which causes blindness. In a classic utilitarian fashion, he lays out our utility measurement for $100,000 invested. On the one hand the museum will provide 50 years of expected service and aesthetic pleasure, and he estimates that our contribution will improve the “aesthetic experiences of 100,000 visitors”. On the other hand contribution to a trachoma-reducing charity will spare “1,000 people from 15 years of blindness”.

The crux of the argument is that in this hypothetical scenario we are in zero-sum game where somebody’s visual/aesthetic pleasure comes, very literally, at the cost of a number of people’s eyes. Would we be, in essence, willing to have people’s eyes gouged out to enjoy a new museum wing? Singer posits to do so “You’d have to be nuts”. We are therefore drawn into a moral quandary, where one choice denotes empathy or humanity or whatever it is that makes us not want to have other people suffer. The other choice is a selfish choice. What kind of a person would choose art at the cost of people’s eyes? Except for, you know, those people that get eyeball tattoos.
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Who said it? the Quote Investigator

Published May 04, 2015 · Estimated reading time: 2 minutes · 2 responses so far
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QUOTATION, n. The act of repeating erroneously the words of another. The words erroneously repeated.
— Ambrose Bierce (The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911)

Most people have some sort of a niche interest… I’ve always been a bit of a quotations aficionado (quote-phile?). You can imagine how excited I was when we first got internet at home in the 90s and I discovered the The Quote Garden. Of course, on occassion I’ve had the nagging fear that perhaps Oscar Wilde was right in saying: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” (De Profundis, 1897). But I think some of us don’t love quotations for the lack of original thoughts… rather, these small bits of thoughts offered by others intrigue us and get our imaginations running. Or at least that’s how I comfort myself.

However, as a caveat to my passion for collecting the words of others, whenever I find a phrase that catches my fancy– I always have to track down the source. Call it my editor’s instinct, but I shudder at the words “Source: Unknown”. Fortunately, most quotes I encounter have sources. Unfortunately, they’re often mangled and misattributed versions of their original self. These insidious frankenstein quotes aren’t just on Facebook groups, Tumblr pages and other bedazzled corners of the web. They’re everywhere. Recently, I was reading a (legit, serious) book which had a great quote from a Rumi poem, and since I can read Persian, I decided to track down the poem in Rumi’s original texts. I tried every permutation and absolutely could not track a legitimate textual source in Persian… or any other language including English! (I’d missed that Rumi’s a cultural meme now…)

quote investigator During this little adventure I stumbled on what is my favorite recent discovery on the internet these days– Garson O’Toole’s blog “Quote Investigator”. A real entertaining rabbit hole, the blog takes a disputed quote, then methodically unravels the histories and the people to whom the quote has been attributed– then BAM! concludes with the most likely source for the quotation. This site has given me hope that there is end in sight to the travesty of quote misattribution, but has also opened my eyes to a whole history behind some of my favorite words from the past.

Permanent linkMarzieh Ghiasi