Elementary my dear Troodon

Now I’m a big fan of Sherlock Homes as a character and I’ve read every story more than once and seen pretty much every adaptation from film or TV that I can get my hands on (though there are really quite a few). The key characteristic of Holmes is typically portrayed as being his ability to make his inferences and deductions based on the tiniest details.

However what gets overlooked is his colossal knowledge of well, nearly everything (except practical gardening and astronomy of course). Spotting a tiny splash of mud on the leg of a trouser is one thing, but that information is only useful if you know what the soil looks like for every part of London and can thus identify where it originated. In other words, noticing something is only part of the battle, and if anything the smaller part of it. A vast bank of technical knowledge is required to turn observations into useful data and then this has to be interpreted correctly.

Obviously these are works of fiction and certainly Holmes gets to bend things to his benefit from time to time. At his first appearance he notes that Watson must have been in Afghanistan recently since he was clearly from the British army and got a lot of sun and a war wound, despite the presence of the British army in South Africa in the Boer War at that time as well (Conan Doyle wasn’t always so exacting in his knowledge as his creation). That spot of mud on the trouser leg may have been picked up from someone else’s shaken umbrella perhaps, or splashed from a passing bicycle, or was three days old, but such numerous possible exceptions are left out as they confound the narrative.

However, aside from an excuse to crowbar in a favourite of mine into a discussion of dinosaurs, for stories written in the early 1900’s there are far worse models to follow with regards to his basic procedural science. Collect as much data as possible. Try to avoid sources of bias and error. Use your knowledge to interpret, and if lacking do some research. Follow every lead to its conclusion, or at least until sure it is no longer relevant. Assemble and assimilate your data and attempt to come to a logical conclusion based on your knowledge and experience. Not too shabby really as a creation of a man who accepted spiritualism and fairies. Despite that Holmes himself is given to some rather choice quotes about science as well as his abilities:

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.

“Data! Data! Data!” he cried impatiently. “I can’t make bricks without clay.”

“Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing,” answered Holmes thoughtfully. “It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different.”

“We balance probabilities and choose the most likely. It is the scientific use of the imagination.

“As Cuvier could correctly describe a whole animal by the contemplation of a single bone, so the observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents should be able to accurately state all the other ones, both before and after.

And let’s face it anyone who knows well enough to invoke Cuvier’s ability as an anatomist requires a little love from the palaeontologists, surely?

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5 Responses to “Elementary my dear Troodon”


  1. 1 Francisco Gascó 05/02/2010 at 3:57 pm

    Wow! These quotes are really inspiring. Don’t you mind if I use them in some lectures or blog posts?
    This has been a really interesting post! Congratulations.😉

    • 2 David Hone 05/02/2010 at 4:21 pm

      Well, the quotes are lifted directly from Conan Doyle’s stories, so they are hardly ‘mine’. If you mean things I said elsewhere in the post then of course, feel free to use them.

  2. 3 Mike Taylor 05/02/2010 at 8:50 pm

    Meanwhile, over at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, geology professor Steven Dutch has a rather different view on Sherlock Holmes: http://www.uwgb.edu/DutchS/PSEUDOSC/2NonMyst.htm

    Key quote: “Holmes is infallible because Doyle writes him that way. He […] generally views formulating a plausible hypothesis as the solution to the problem. Given this essentially mystical view of the scientific method, where intuitive methods are infallible and never need correction, it is no mystery at all how Doyle could be a credulous spiritualist. Holmes embodies Conan Doyle’s fantasies of omnipotent scientific intuition, which Doyle acted out himself in his investigations of spiritualism.”

    Ha! Take THAT, Baker Street Irregulars!

    By the way Dutch’s pseudoscience page, linked from the Holmes article above, contains a lot of excellent stuff. Very well worth a visit.

    • 4 David Hone 06/02/2010 at 11:34 am

      Well I did try to convey a bit of that Mike, like I say, he’s obviously fictional and as such gets to cheat, but equally I do think there are a couple of little lessons there that are far from bad as a starting point for science. As Davor notes, it’d be damned hard to write a convincing short story on deduction if you really did have to eliminate every possibility. Could take a while!

  3. 5 Davor 05/02/2010 at 10:44 pm

    Interesting link, Mike. Dutch’s view makes some sense, but I imagine Holmes’ infallibility had as much to do with the conventions of writing mystery fiction as it did with Doyle’s loopy worldview.

    I haven’t read any Holmes stories, and I imagine I was like many of the folks watching the new Robert Downey Jr. version: I knew characters because of reputation. For me though, the greatest source of suspense was the fear that the movie was actually going to propose a supernatural explanation for the mystery. I was so relieved when Holmes solved it rationally, and really delivered a smackdown to superstition.


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