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Quantitative research is the numerical representation and manipulation of observations for the purpose of describing and explaining the phenomena that those observations reflect. It is used in a wide variety of natural and social sciences, including physics, biology, psychology, sociology and geology.
Quantitative research begins with the collection of statistics, based on real data, observations or questionnaires. In the field of health, for example, researchers might measure and study the relationship between dietary intake and measurable physiological effects such as weight loss. Opinion surveys are a form of quantitative research in which respondents are asked a set of fixed questions and their responses are tallied. In the field of climate science, researchers compile and compare statistics such as temperature or atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide.
Sometimes quantitative research uses proxies as stand-ins for other quantities that cannot be directly measured. Tree-ring width, for example, is considered a reliable proxy of ambient environmental conditions such as the warmth of growing seasons or amount of rainfall. Although scientists cannot directly measure the temperature of past years, tree-ring width and other climate proxies have been used to provide a semi-quantitative record of average temperature in the Northern Hemisphere back to 1000 A.D. When used in this way, the proxy record (tree ring width, say) only reconstructs a certain amount of the variance of the original record. The proxy may be calibrated (for example, during the period of the instrumental record) to determine how much variation is captured, including whether both short and long term variation is revealed. In the case of tree-ring width, different species in different places may show more or less sensitivity to, say, rainfall or temperature: when reconstructing a temperature record there is considerable skill in selecting proxies that are well correlated with the desired variable.
Quantitative research is often contrasted with qualitative research, which is the non-numerical examination and interpretation of observations for the purpose of discovering underlying meanings and patterns of relationships. Qualitative research is generally considered to be exploratory and inductive in nature. It is used to get a general sense of what is happening and to form theories that can then be tested using quantitative research, which is viewed as confirmatory and deductive in nature.