Hindsight wisdom is of no use

Several years ago, I presented the progress report for one of my research projects in front of an evaluation committee, set up by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. The committee people were from various background and institutions, but it was the head of the committee whom I remember most vividly. Perhaps he was frustrated with the slow progress or unsatisfying results from the other researchers before me. Perhaps he was just having a bad hair day, or perhaps he thought his role in the evaluation committee was akin to being an American Idol judge. Whatever his reasons were, he was bordering on being rude and unprofessional. But that isn’t what I want to talk about; it was something he said to me during my presentation.

During my slide presentation, I showed the committee one of my results. It was a conceptual diagram of how a “plug-and-play” feature could be developed for agricultural models. The head of the committee was obviously unimpressed by my colourful diagram. He further remarked that my conceptual model was, well, blindingly obvious. Which now brings me to the issue of “hindsight knowledge”.

Hindsight knowledge makes us think that the solution to a given problem is obvious but only after the solution is presented or revealed to us. The solution to a problem may appear obvious, but prior to the answer being revealed to you, would you know the answer? For instance, after the solution has been revealed, you might say, “Of course, that’s the answer. It’s pretty obvious.” But prior to the revelation, would you have really known about the “blindingly obvious” answer? Vision is always 20/20 at hindsight, isn’t it?

Henry Darcy (1803-1858)

Science has several examples of  “blindingly obvious” solutions. I can think of the well-known Darcy’s Law to calculate the flow of water in porous medium. It was derived by Henry Darcy, a French engineer, in 1856. Using several simple and cheap apparatus, he observed that the flow rate of water through a porous medium (saturated sand, in this case) was proportional to the difference in pressure between the inlet and outlet and inversely proportional to the length or distance the water has to flow through the medium. Today, his experiment can be easily repeated in your home (and no doubt, this experiment is routinely taught in many soil physics laboratories for undergraduates in universities). And no, there is no need for either fancy and expensive equipment or the patience of Job for carrying out this experiment.

Today, I look at the simplicity of Darcy’s work, and I think,  “Well, I could have done this. It’s easy and obvious.” Of course, with the benefit of hindsight knowledge, I could have done what Darcy did, and the law would have been named after me today. But, it was Darcy, not me or anyone else, who did it first. It was Darcy’s insight and creativity that helped him to develop what is now the widely-used equation in hydrological studies.

Which now brings me to what happened yesterday. Yesterday, I presented my research progress report in front of another evaluation committee. This time the progress report was for my research under MOA (Ministry of Agriculture), and the presentation was held at Residence Hotel, Bangi.

I managed to talk to some of the researchers who had earlier finished their presentation. The researchers said they were grilled by the committee. The committee, they said, were tough, questioning the researchers’ methods and to one researcher, even saying…wait for it…”Your results are obvious. Nothing new here.” Like a flashback, I was reminded of my experience from that many years ago.

Fortunately, when my turn to present came, there was none of the nonsense I experienced the last time. The committee comprised four people. Prof. Zin Zawawi was there too. I think the committee were impressed by my work progress. I think the brief report I wrote for them and the simulation results impressed them enough that I have been doing my work. I know one Professor who has yet to start any experiments even after one year! I am not sure how he is going to spin his lack of progress (or rather no progress) in his presentation.

I like to end this entry with an Indian proverb: “Hindsight wisdom is of no use”. Well, frankly, I think that’s pretty obvious.

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