On Devils and Details
My thesis advisor was fond of the phrase "the devil's in the details." I always took this to mean that the details, left undone, would come back to bite you in the ass.
I've since decided that this really is true in science, and it bites everyone (including my thesis advisor). But like most things in life, timing counts for a lot. If you can outrun the details, you can get away with leaving them out.
And knowing when a detail is a technical problem, or an exception to your model, is critical.
Sometimes chasing a detail is just a tangent. Sometimes it's the whole enchilada.
When I was learning how to write postdoc fellowships, my advisor told me that it was important to add enough detail to make it believable that you've really thought everything through. Of course the challenge, then, was not to take up too much space with minor points.
This was when I started to think a lot about emphasis. You want to highlight your main points, and then dress them up with just enough details. The trick was choosing the right details:
Not all details are equal.
More recently, I've noticed that my interdisciplinary interests are biting me in the ass, due to religious differences over the utility of details.
One discipline values details as a mark of integrity and thoroughness. Their papers tend to be solid, reproducible, and not in the Cell/Science/Nature journals.
The other discipline is quite the opposite. They value salesmanship. I'm pleased if I'm able to reproduce anything that has been published in that field, since it means it might not all be wrong.
To those people, salesmanship means glossing over, if not outright burying, details that don't fit with the prettiest version of their model.
They view people who pay attention to the details as mere technicians: people who must surely be missing the big picture.
Of course there is no correlation, so far as I can tell, between people who are good technically or who pay attention to details, and the ability to simultaneously think about the big picture. It's really a spectrum, like most human qualities. The two skills are not mutually exclusive.
I think the best scientists can do both the macro and the micro, the thinking and the hands-on part.
However, thinking about the big picture, and communicating the big picture, are two different things. That's where the sales skills come in.
Communicating the big picture is something some of us have to work hard to learn how to do. So I'm trying to figure out which details to hide on my slides, so I don't lose the people from the sales-heavy field - and just hope someone from the other field will ask if they don't believe me, so I can fill them in later.
I find myself trapped, since so far as I can tell, these sales people are largely Devils - when they're not outright lying, they're dangerously sloppy.
And I've had the unfortunate experience, perhaps because of my particular interdisciplinary bent, that leaving out any details tends to annoy reviewers and lower my credibility.
It matters which details you leave out.
Not to turn this into another rant about how corrupt our publication and funding and hiring systems are, but, let's face it. Most scientists can't handle the real truth: that many of their colleagues are desperate enough to be devils who bury the details that would ruin all their favorite models.
So I really have to wonder, if we held everyone to a higher standard, and really asked for all the details - could we get out of this state of denial where people are offended, rather than proud, to be asked?