Everything is Almost Obvious

I am a great fan of Pulp Fiction, and one my favorite characters is Mr. Wolf (Harvey Keitel), the gentleman who “solves problems”. In the movie, Mr. Wolf is called to help out two hitmen (John Travolta and Samuel Jackson) who accidentally killed a minor character in their car. The interesting thing about Mr. Wolf is that he, indeed, solves the problem with a list of almost obvious orders: “clean the car, wash yourself, change your clothes”. Before his arrival, however, the two killers and their host (Quentin Tarantino) were panicking and were totally unable to resolve the situation.

I recently read a nice book titled, “The Craft of Scientific Writing” by Michael Alley. It was actually the second time I attempted to read the book. The first time, I just skimmed it and closed it pretty quickly, thinking “OK, this makes a lot of sense but I kind of know all this”. In fact, the book gives lots of useful advice, and while reading them, they make so much sense as to appear almost obvious: “make examples, eliminate redundancies, prefer active form to passive forms, avoid ambiguities (for instance don’t use synonyms)” and so on. The interesting thing about the book is that it seems easy to find actual scientific papers which do not follow those pieces of advices. Michael Alley also wrote “The Craft of Scientific Presentations”, and, judging from the presentations I see around, I doubt it was a bestseller.

From time to time, I hear scientists say “this makes sense”. Sometimes they mean that something is going great: for instance, you find some correlations in some sort of data and, after a few seconds, a rationale comes up which makes perfect sense. In those cases, I ask myself “if the correlation was the opposite what would be the rationale?” and a couple of rationales might come up in the same amount of time. Other times, scientists say “this makes sense because of this other thing”, and they usually mean that what you found is trivial. In those cases, I try to remember: to say that something is trivial after you know it is true, is similar to predicting the past. Much simpler than predicting the future.

There is a nice book about all of this and probably more, entitled “Everything is obvious (once you know the answer)” by Duncan Watts. But I haven’t read the book because my common sense actually told me that I probably already know what it is all about(*).

Andrea Lancichinetti

(*) There might be exceptions, though. Quite a number of my friends are physicists, but I doubt any of them would say that quantum mechanics is obvious. On the other hand, Feynman said once: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”.