I’ve never met a Sherlock Holmes I didn’t like. Created by Arthur Conan Doyle in a series of books and short stories, Sherlock Holmes has been borrowed by many authors and filmmakers through the years. In every version, Holmes dispassionately sifts clues and solves crimes that baffle the authorities.
The newest tip of the hat to Sherlock Holmes is Fox’s “Houdini and Doyle,” a fanciful re-imagining of the real life friendship between Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. Harry Houdini, famous escape artist and master of illusion, was a committed fraudbuster, exposing the trickery behind many popular spiritualists. Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the hyper-rational, logical Sherlock Holmes, was ironically particularly gullible to these kinds of con artists, publicly defending many who later confessed or were found out.
The premise of the show is the tension between the two men as they investigate crimes together – Houdini, the skeptic, versus Doyle, the man who should know better but lets his emotions lead him astray. By the conclusion of each episode, science prevails and Doyle is once more humbled.
Imagine how different our world would be if reason and truth always won, if we were more like Houdini or Sherlock Holmes than like Arthur Conan Doyle. In reality, however, we are all guilty of “motivated reasoning” – holding demonstrably false beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Instead of being genuinely open-minded, we search for data to support our beliefs.
In an election year, this tendency toward motivated reasoning and confirmation bias prevails in political discourse, but it’s obvious in other news, too. When people are fearful, they are more resistant to evidence that challenges their beliefs, and two recent stories highlight this. Take, for example, the issues of child vaccination and transgender bathroom use. In both cases people believe strongly that they are making decisions that will keep children safe. In both cases those beliefs are unfounded and difficult to dispel.
Giving people information helps – a little. For example, the recent uptick in cases of measles and mumps has prompted much careful research concluding that vaccines do not cause autism and are safer than the diseases they prevent. Some “anti-vaxxer” parents – but not all – are convinced by the scientific studies.
Likewise, as the public is educated about gender dysphoria and the myths of transgender bathroom predators and criminal opportunists are debunked, many in the public eye are speaking out against HB2 and LGBT discrimination. Even so, some people continue to support the bill and cite their fears as justification.
Changing hearts and minds isn’t always possible – but changing behavior is. That’s why policy matters. Schools that refuse admission to unvaccinated children and pediatricians who insist that all of their patients follow vaccination protocols protect the community even as they make a few parents uncomfortable.
I applaud federal guidelines protecting LGBT students in schools and see the necessity of the Departments of Justice and Education bringing legal action against an unjust law. Protecting the safety of everyone – and affording protection for groups often singled out for harassment and violence – is an American value I don’t want to see us abandon.
It’s not always possible to be as smart or clear-eyed as Sherlock Holmes, but being aware of our own faulty reasoning is a start.
Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.