You can be a hero with a simple idea

Yesterday I mentioned someone who published a scholarly paper in 1994 for a technique commonly taught in freshman calculus. There’s been a lot of discussion of this (the paper, not my blog post) on the web. The general take has been that this was an egregious failure in the peer review system. No one recognized a simple, centuries-old idea. No one called up a high school math teacher and asked “Hey, have you seen this before?” All that is true, but here’s a different take on the situation.

The paper reinventing the trapezoid rule has been cited 75 times. It must have filled a need. Yes, the author was ignorant of basic calculus. But apparently a lot of other doctors are just as ignorant of calculus. The author did the medical profession a service by pointing out a simple way to estimate the area under a glucose-response curve. The technique was not original, and should not have been published as original research, but it was valuable.

Surely some doctors already knew how to find the area under a glucose-response curve. But apparently many others did not, and they learned something useful from the article. The article did some good, more good than original but arcane articles that no one reads, even though it was bad scholarship.

The author made a connection that not everyone else had made. This reminds me of Picasso’s sculpture Head of a Bull.

Picasso: Head of a Bull

All Picasso did was put handle bars on top of a bicycle seat and say “Hey, that looks like a bull.” His sculpture took zero technical skill, but it was clever. Was Picasso the first human to ever have this idea? Maybe.

Sometimes you can be a hero by taking what is common as dirt in one context and applying it to a new context.

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6 thoughts on “You can be a hero with a simple idea

  1. According to the comments here, there was a follow-up article published in the same journal entitled “Tai’s formula is the trapezoidal rule.” That’s reassuring. However, the follow-up article did not prevent people from citing Tai’s article. But also according to the comments, Tai’s article has been cited 137 times while the correction has only been cited 3 times.

  2. “Sometimes you can be a hero by taking what is common as dirt in one context and applying it to a new context.”

    A colleague calls this “intellectual arbitrage”, without intending to disparage anyone involved.

  3. This is real!

    However, the paper was considered as short report not an original technical article and thus did not give significant credit to the author. Nowadays only journal articles will be counted towards your real publications.

    Anyway, this is a very interesting information to share. Thanks!

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