Where’s Sherlock Holmes when you need him?
Not the iconic crime fighter, but the legendary clear-headed thinker, the detective who understands the difference between deductive reasoning and everything else that passes for rational thought. Turn on any television news show that pretends to offer debate or argument and you see how truly rare deductive reasoning is – or even, for that matter, rational thought.
Sherlock Holmes, the master
Sherlock Holmes was the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle who modeled him after Dr. Joseph Bell, a doctor whose deductive reasoning impressed Conan Doyle as a medical student. Fortunately for mystery readers, Conan Doyle’s medical practice after he finished his stint at the Royal Infirmary at Edinburgh wasn’t very lucrative, giving him both time and motive to write and submit his work for publication in literary magazines. One of his first successful stories introduced Holmes in 1886, and by the time Conan Doyle finally retired him in 1914, he had written 56 stories and 4 novels featuring the detective.
I’ve been a fan of Holmes since my mother gave me a complete set of the stories when I was a kid, and I’ve reread them so many times that the pleasure is no longer in wondering how the mysteries will be solved but in watching their inevitable unraveling through Holmes’ deductions.
Sherlock Holmes has translated well to theater and film, too. Even during Conan Doyle’s lifetime, long-running plays featuring Holmes as the protagonist were popular. Basil Rathbone brought Holmes to life in early movies, and Jeremy Brett’s portrayal ran for a decade on television.
In 2009 Robert Downey, Jr. starred as Holmes in the first of two Guy Ritchie movies. Downey’s Holmes is hyper-manic, almost feverish in intensity, the explications of his deductions helpfully shown in slow motion before being acted out in warp speed.
BBC followed up the next year with “Sherlock,” a television series starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a self-described “high-functioning sociopath,” a genius so socially inept that his Watson, played by Martin Freeman, sometimes calls him on it.
This past September CBS launched yet a different version of Holmes, this one played by Jonny Lee Miller as a recovering addict and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, his sobriety watchdog. Set in New York City, “Elementary” feels more like a police procedural show than the other recent versions, yet the important touchstones are there. Holmes is a paradoxically brilliant and flawed loner who needs a sounding board. Watson – a doctor – serves that function and is our eyes and ears as Holmes explains how he employs deduction to find the truth.
Proving things for sure
Deductive reasoning proves things for certain. Given incontrovertible premises, deduction sets a condition where the truth is not in question. The famous Aristotelian syllogism – all men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal – is an example.
Inductive reasoning, on the other hand, can only determine whether or not something is likely to be true. When we argue by analogy or calculate the odds of something happening based on our prior experience, we are using our inductive reasoning ability.
Most of the time, however, inductive reasoning serves us well enough to get by.
The problem is that most of us believe we are Sherlock Holmes instead of realizing we are Watson. Like Watson, we are duffers in logic, leaping to the wrong conclusions because we start with faulty premises, rarely seeing the big picture because our focus is too small and our emotions too engaged. We think we use deduction when we don’t, rarely questioning our premises, imagining that our conclusions are airtight.
Ongoing research into how we reason – how our brains make meaning – further casts our faith in our convictions in doubt. We are shaped and nudged by prejudices and influences we are oblivious to – which no amount of conscious effort can make us shake off.
You wouldn’t know it to watch the political punditry on TV or to read the trollish commentary in the print media, though. We are more interested in being heard than in being right, and we are far too sure we are right to entertain any self-doubt.
Confusing confidence, causality
We could use another Sherlock Holmes or two to call us to count when we declare we have the moral high ground, when we believe we have connected the dots in the only way possible, when we confuse coincidence for causality. With Sherlock Holmes looking over our shoulder, we’d be less likely to cause each other so many headaches and ourselves so much heartache with our self-assured posturing.
Partisan deadlock might disappear if people stopped believing in their infallibility; what passes for wit in social media would be revealed as the sloppy thinking it is.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely to happen. We’ll have to settle for being entertained by the adventures of a fictional character who has become almost larger than life.
Guest columnist Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C., and author of “Notes from a Classroom: Reflections on Teaching.” Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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