May 2, 2005

What's Wrong with Sherlock Holmes' Theory of Knowledge

After reading about how ignorant Harvard gradsA Study in Scarlet (chronologically the first Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson story) that has interested me since I was a boy: were about practical astronomy, a reader sent me a passage from Arthur Conan Doyle's

[Sherlock Holmes'] ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge.

Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the
Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."

"To forget it!"

"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order.

It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

"But the
Solar System!" I protested.

"What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently; "you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."

In terms of time, there's some truth to this idea -- time spent reading astronomy books is time that can't be spent studying how to distinguish between the scores of brands of cigar ash that killers might leave at the scene of the crime.

Nonetheless, I think Holmes' view is fundamentally fallacious. The more and more accurate models you have in your head, the easier it is to remember facts because the truth all fits together. You can crosscheck facts and ideas more easily.

For example, these Harvard grads have a model in their head that says that if their new employers send them off to the New Zealand office in July, they should have take their swimsuits and tropical weight business suits because the earth is closest to the sun in July. Maybe they've heard that it's winter in the Southern Hemisphere when it's summer in the Northern Hemisphere, but facts are a lot easier to remember if they function as examples for a theory in your head, rather than as just random bits of data.

For example, it's hard to remember what your previous phone number was because it's meaningless digits. In contrast, it's not that hard to remember the atomic weight of, say, carbon or oxygen if you understand why the periodic table of elements is laid out the way it is.

Similarly, you can remember a lot more facts about modern life if you keep simple models in your head about certain taboo topics such as race, gender, and IQ. If you think honestly, you can think better because the truth all fits together, one fact leading to another. In contrast, politically correct myths are all intellectual dead ends.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The whole beginning was a joke by Holmes. Later stories make clear, that Holmes—who has just met Watson—is 'pulling Watson's leg'.

Despite Holmes' supposed ignorance of politics, in "A Scandal in Bohemia" he immediately recognizes the true identity of the supposed Count von Kramm.

The Valley of Fear, Holmes declares that “all knowledge comes useful to the detective," and is known to study other subjects such as literature.