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A Baker Street irregularity

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The Sherlock Holmes Collections at the University of Minnesota Library store more than 60,000 items of various kinds. It’s the largest repository of Holmes-related material in the world.

It seemed like the perfect refuge from some of the more acrimonious replies to last week’s re-run about intellectual relativism and my comments that preceded it. In case you missed it, here are some excerpts:

“I’ve been warning of the dangers of intellectual relativism for more than a decade now, for all the good it’s done.

Check out PolitiFact’s statistics about the two leading candidates for president and you’ll find that one almost literally invents his own facts, while the other speaks with reasonable accuracy in about 75% of her statements.

Which one is more honest isn’t in serious doubt. What is in serious doubt are our standards for veracity: Were we to grade on a curve, the candidate who misstates the facts in one out of every four utterances is getting an A.

As a nation I don’t know that we ever truly had a culture of honest inquiry, but it’s clear we don’t have one now and even more clear each and every one of us needs to do what we can to make this happen.

Starting with ourselves, because confirmation bias is alive and well and living in each of our minds.

– Bob”

In the archives I discovered a curious document. It records an exchange between Holmes and Dr. Watson that had nothing to do with a case. It’s a conversation between two friends regarding the value of facts, evidence, and logic when drawing conclusions about important topics.

As with most of what we know about Holmes, it was written by Dr. Watson. I reproduce it here for your edification, education, and consideration:

“My dear Holmes!” I exclaimed. I was, as was often the case, astonished at his insistence on reading volume upon volume of the most unreliable … I hesitate to call them “newspapers” given that their content covers a spectrum that begins with hyperbole and ends with out-and-out libel, but I have no other word to substitute.

I had observed this habit for years, but found I could not bear for another day watching the world’s finest intellect engaged for an hour a day on utterly worthless rubbish.

Having been asked about the reason for his fascination with such drivel in direct terms, he replied in terms no less direct: “But my dear Watson. This drivel, this rubbish, this waste of tree pulp and ink as you so amusingly describe it, is anything but worthless.”

“Please observe: Who do you and I associate and converse with during the normal course of our lives?”

As it happens, neither Holmes nor I socialize to any great extent, so the accurate answer would have been each other. Having pointed this out, I added, “When we’re investigating some matter or other, we interview witnesses and, to his frequent dismay, interact with Lestrade. Other than that there’s your brother Mycroft and Mrs. Hudson. Beyond this, when we do find ourselves at a social gathering it is hosted by the Lords and Ladies of London society.”

“Precisely!” he congratulated me. “And please tell me, when we find ourselves in substantive conversations with these worthies, how often it happens that we disagree on what we consider to be the fundamental and important truths?”

“Seldom, if ever,” I conceded. “But surely you aren’t claiming that reading these exploitative publications will expose you to important and differing perspectives, and the evidence and logic behind them.”

“Of course not, Watson. To the extent these publications offer evidence, it is distorted or fabricated, and what they call logic would cause Aristotle to rotate in his tomb with considerable velocity.”

“No,” he continued, “I read these to gain insight into how those who firmly adhere to utterly preposterous opinions and worldviews have come to do so.”

“Is Moriarty the source of it all?” I asked.

“No,” he replied. “Moriarty would be far more subtle, his propositions more difficult to disprove. And in any event, my goal is to understand the psychology that prefers implausible nonsense to reliable evidence.”

“Have you reached any conclusions?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied. “It is that most people, most of the time, accept without dispute any statement that justifies what they wish to be true, while rejecting on even the flimsiest of pretexts any declaration that contradicts it.”

“Ah,” I said. “I’ve heard people say they ‘trust their guts.’ Are you saying that this is how people choose what they believe?”

Holmes smiled approvingly. “It’s alimentary, my dear Watson.”

Comments (16)

  • You don’t have to grade on the curve. Even a C is better than an F.

  • Ah yes, the good old “confirmation bias.” It has contributed to both the collapse of civil discourse and the rise of so-called news organizations that break every journalistic principle my father followed in his career.

    The punchline is horrible, of course – but the influence of confirmation bias is all too real.

  • Ouch.

    I recently heard it said that humans are made 10% out of flesh and bone, and 90% water and confirmation bias. This election proves that.

  • Oy! I must say I found the Holmes example a bit hard to swallow, at first, though enjoyable. I suspect the true reasons someone claims to be trusting their gut, in the face of a preponderance of verifiable facts, would be largely unpalatable to most if brought up into the light of day.

    In my experience, “the psychology that prefers implausible nonsense to reliable evidence” is more often than not, rooted in feelings of shame, whether justified or not.

    And with that, the Psychologist is out…

  • VERY good! (Although I admit I had to look up alimentary). Also an interesting read about the Holmes archives

  • I saw what you did there…Well played sir.

  • You mention acrimonious replies to last week’s column, but when I read the replies to it I didn’t see anything I would describe as acrimonious. I know you screen comments (wisely), I suppose you screened out the “acrimonious” ones? Or maybe we have different definitions.

    In any case, should we take as fact that there were acrimonious replies based solely upon your assertion? 🙂

    (If so, I’d say that is valid – this is your column, and your opinions, and your opinions about others’ opinions. But then maybe I’m a dangerous intellectual relativist. Studying epistemology as part of a degree in philosophy can do that to a person 😉

  • I really enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes material. Nicely done!

  • LOL – loved the “pun”ch line…..

  • Love it! (Had no idea that Minnesota was the site of so much Holmesiana!)

  • I got all excited thinking there was a Sherlock story I had missed. Might be an opportunity there …

  • It does seem that, with each passing year, American society falls ever more deeply under the influence of the Semmelweis Refelx.

  • Well the New York Times may think of itself as the newspaper of record, but it’s never been the most popular “news” paper in America. That title goes to The National Enquirer. Throughout my own life, I have consistently underestimated the importance of entertainment in society.

  • Bob:

    As a long-time fan of Sherlock Holmes, I was surprised as I started to read this that I was not aware of the repository of material at the U of Minnesota or of this piece.

    Reading it I started to think that the style and word use was similar to your won writing ‘voice’ — then I got to the last sentence….

    My guy told me this was a set up for something — so was my gut lucky or are there time, events, situations and considerations where experience supports decision making when there may be a drought of facts?

    As usual, I enjoyed the column!


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