I had a harrowing decision to make the other day. I recently cancelled my Audible subscription, and I had one final token to buy any book with. But which book to buy? I wanted to get the best bang for my buck – this final one was going to have to last me a while. So naturally, I gravitated towards The Complete Works Of Sherlock Holmes… which was 77 hours long. It’s also narrated by Steven Fry, which is always good.
After listening to A Study In Scarlet, the first book in the series, there were two aspects of Arthur Conan Doyle’s book that drew my attention. Both of them were grounded in the idea of knowledge, the perception of knowledge, skills, and the perception of skills. I.e. what we know, what we can do, and how we perceive these possessions and processes. Part of the magic of Holmes is how he describes what it’s like to see the world through his eyes. But what do his eyes see? If we split this up into skills and knowledge, we can compare how Sherlock – and by proxy, Doyle, perceived the world, and compare this to contemporary psychology.
“It was easier to know it than to explain why I knew it. If you were asked to prove that two and two made four, you might find some difficulty, and yet you are quite sure of the fact. Even across the street I could see a great blue anchor tattooed on the back of the fellow’s hand. That smacked of the sea. He had a military carriage, however, and regulation 12 side whiskers. There we have the marine. He was a man with some amount of self-importance and a certain air of command. You must have observed the way in which he held his head and swung his cane. A steady, respectable, middle-aged man, too, on the face of him—all facts which led me to believe that he had been a sergeant.”
“Wonderful!” I ejaculated.
“Commonplace,” said Holmes, though I thought from his expression that he was pleased at my evident surprise and admiration.
What’s interesting about this is that Holmes describes pretty accurately what happens when you’ve reached the fourth stage of skill competency, based on the model of the four stages of competence, which is “unconscious competence”. An example of unconscious competence is the skill of putting our clothes on in the morning – how often do we get up and start putting on clothes, thinking about the day ahead, only to look down and found we’ve now completed the action 30 seconds later. We’re so used to putting our clothes on in the morning that we do it completely on autopilot, and at this point, it would be slower to explain how we’re doing it than to actually do it.
What makes Holme’s remark even more interesting, though, is that Doyle wrote A Study In Scarlet in 1887. The psychological model of “the Four Stages Of Competence” was developed in 1970. Or at least, it was popularised and codified as a model in 1970. It clearly existed as a concept in Doyle’s head long before it was elucidated as a psychological theory.
So that’s how Holmes views skills… how does he perceive knowledge?
“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.”
The character of Sherlock becomes even more interesting when analysing how he perceives the acquisition of knowledge. What’s interesting is that he acknowledges that there are skills we have mastered to the point of unconscious competence, yet he doesn’t seem to acknowledge the equivalent in knowledge: the unknown known. The unknown known encompasses the things we know that we don’t realise we know: common sense falls under this category. Well, for some people. Common sense also falls under the category of ‘unknown unknown’ for others… moving on…
The thing is, a lot of that knowledge we need to traverse life only ever gets learnt tacitly, to be organised away somewhere in our brains as unrealised knowledge. We need unknown knowns to function and solve problems, and it’s important to understand that a lot of the knowledge we use to solve problems were never explicitly intended to be learnt in the first place. If we could travel into the future and know every aspect of the case, we could then go back in time to think about what we need to learn in order to solve it. But life isn’t like that: it throws you a problem, and if you’ve equipped yourself with the knowledge and skills prior to that point, you’re good, if not, you better learn fast. There might be a case for Sherlock in the future that hinges on the notion of a heliocentric solar system. Sure, it’d be convoluted, but it could still happen and because of that, Holmes isn’t correct in disregarding this new information.
There is one aspect of what Holmes says that I agree on, though. Now that he’s learnt of a different model of the Solar System, he’s spent his time listening to it so he might as well commit it to memory. But when planning what to learn, it’s important to be very careful what will be the most valuable skill/knowledge is for our situation in life, and then learn that first. If we’re not careful, we could spend an entire lifetime acquiring useless information and skills, where we have no chance to actually apply those skills in the environment that we are situated in. Take Biology class in secondary school, for example. How are we applying that knowledge? But hey, at least when the government ask me how it is that I still don’t know tax laws by the age of 27 after botching my Deliveroo self-assessment, I can tell them, “the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell”.
And I won’t even get into the other aspect of what Holmes said, regarding how we have finite space in our minds with which to hold information…