Chinatown: The Importance of Correctness

Many scientists remember A New Kind Of Science by Stephen Wolfram, a self-published tome of a book filled with a lot of thoughts on computation and the universe. Wolfram had drummed up considerable hype before the release but few were sure what to make of it when it was published. Dr. Wolfram is (by any standard) a very clever person and he's built a very successful company around, what many people agree, is a cool product. All that is very easy to google, but this was the Puzzle Of ANKOS: was it really about a new kind of science or had Dr. Wolfram embraced the path of many an accomplished scientist and simply gone batty?


This post isn't about the Puzzle Of ANKOS, it is about Steven Krantz's (at WashU) review of it.

His review tries to remain respectful of the book (it certainly contains many interesting small programs) but doesn't endorse Wolfram's grandiose suggestions and points out the general non-specificity. The last paragraph of the paper describes the final scene in the movie Chinatown where:

In the dramatic closing scene, Nicholson is trying to find words to explain to the police the infrastructure of depravity that he has identified, but he can find no way to articulate his thoughts. He ultimately points at Huston and cries, “He’s rich!” Huston adopts a wry look on his face, smiles, and says, “I didn’t know it was a crime to be rich . . . ,” and then the credits roll.

Wow, what a great scene! It perfectly illustrates that desperate feeling of knowing there is some shadowy maestro orchestrating a set of disparate events and is deliberately making it all look like a coincidence but you just can't prove it. Krantz's description of the scene made an impact on me and I am sure I referred to it in conversations and writing. I wanted to use it again and decided to look it up since I hadn't seen the movie. There is a problem though... turns out the scene does not exist.

The movie, in addition to reflecting some unapologetically racist times, has a celebrated ending line: "Forget it, Jake -- it's Chinatown" that has been the subject of a fair bit of analysis. None of the Krantz's quoted lines are in the movie anywhere, indeed, they misrepresent the ending entirely. I wrote to Krantz to ask him to clarify and all he could suggest was that he was paraphrasing (with quotes, of course) and he might have seen a different cut. I can find no evidence of such a cut (which, I imagine, would be quite famous).

While I suppose this doesn't reflect on the implications of ANKOS or any mathematical theorem, such obviously problematic writing lowers the credibility of a paper considerably. I can imagine myself committing such a mistake one day (who hasn't thought they have seen something they hadn't) but I hope I'll always admit when I am so clearly wrong.



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