Sherlock Holmes: A Commentary

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.

 

Skills

“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?

 

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…

 

Image result for homer simpson when i learn something new

On Inaction

“The world is a dangerous place. Not because of those who do evil but because of those who look on & do nothing” – Mr. Robot S01E02 (even though this is a pretty common mentality echoed by thousands of others)

 

It was at this moment, watching Mr Robot, that I really thought about the consequences of those words. I’ve always agreed with the sentiment to a certain extent. When we see evil and allow it to happen, we implicitly condone it. We’re evil through association, based on our inaction against it. But what would happen if everyone took action based on their beliefs?

And what would happen if not everyone could agree on what to believe: what the best plan of action was for each situation?

We would have a scenario where whatever one side would do, the other side would tear down. If everyone had this mentality, we would experience the ultimate destruction of any progress that humanity tried to make. Especially as most of our high-level accumulated views are so divided. The Brexit vote: 48 – 52 %. Trump/Clinton presidential candidacy: about the same.

If we all held this view, humanity would tear itself apart. Because what we believe as a course of action may differ based on our individual values and every individual’s specific knowledge. The right course of action – the judgment of good and bad, evil and righteous – becomes subjective.

After all is said and done, is it better to allow what our subjective idea of evil is to exist, just so that we can facilitate human progress – whether we’re going in the right direction or not?

 

Just food for thought.

 

On Being A Failure

I was reminded yesterday of a friend who, a few years ago, who didn’t pass her grades. She was distraught.

“I’m a failure!” she cried. I’ve always had an adversity to calling someone a failure. It’s so absolute. Just as when some annoys you, you shouldn’t say, “you’re annoying,” you might say, “you’re annoying me right now”. The first is absolute, The second is temporary. You don’t get annoyed by their very presence (well, I hope no-one has that effect on you). The annoyance comes and goes.

“You’re not a failure, you’ve just failed this time around,” I replied. I was told that I was an optimist (dubious). I didn’t say anything back, but I wish that I had replied that, rather, I was just a rationalist.

We are born without any knowledge bestowed to us – other than the unconscious neural patterns and cognitive biases that allow us to survive as a baby (breathing, shitting, forming attachments with our mothers): which could arguably be said to processes rather than knowledge. As we get older, we accumulate more and more knowledge. After a time, we start testing our knowledge. Sometimes we pass, sometimes we fail. But should we blame ourselves for the knowledge we haven’t yet come across yet and acquired?

Yes, sometimes all of the knowledge is laid out in front of us, and the reason for why we fail is simply that the rate of knowledge acquisition wasn’t good enough. But even then, the skills of acquiring knowledge need to be taught. We need to learn how to learn. And some of us may learn in different preferential ways. Can we be blamed for not coming across a method that suits our style of learning?

I believe that all we can do is to try. Focus our attention at different levels: work at learning how to learn, then on learning. This is a balancing act; there’s no point planning our revision strategies if, by the time we’ve finished planning, we’ve given ourselves no time left to actually revise. Yet still, all we can do is try. When we fail, we highlight our absence of knowledge in certain areas. Failure is a useful learning experience that will help us succeed in the future. With each failure, our chances of being a winner in the future increase, as long as we learn from the failure.

Ultimately, if you don’t buy a ticket, you can’t win. The only time we are ever an absolute failure is when we give up. Because every individual instance of when we fail is an opportunity to glean one more hint into how to succeed next time.

How Our Feelings Can Mislead Us

I’m all up for “following your heart” sometimes. But sometimes… we just shouldn’t. There have been a few instances recently were I’ve relied on my intuition – my feelings – to make decisions and after weighing up these decisions in hindsight, I’ve realised they weren’t the best option to choose. I’d like to share these instances with you to highlight how easy it is to make flawed decisions.

1.  I went to a conference recently to learn about Vacuum gauges, vacuum pumps, how to create a vacuum etc. The conference was given by one of the experts in the industry (who was high in the hierarchy of a vacuum company) so I thought it would be worth-while listening to the conference. I brushed up on my knowledge with a pdf I found on the internet by the company this guy worked for before the talk. It was pretty comprehensive – 134 pages (I didn’t read all of it), but it perfectly explained everything I needed to know. So I read this pdf for a few hours and then set off to the conference. When I sat down and the expert started talking, I realised he was using slides almost directly taken out of the pdf. However, this information now was coming from an expert: he would still fill in a few interesting bits here and there, right? And I didn’t know it inside out. At the end of the day, I felt like I had got a lot done: I had gone into Glasgow Uni, made it to a vacuum conference to listen to an expert talk. Productive day!

In hindsight, though, it took about an hour to get from my room to into the conference hall (so 2 hours travelling there and back). Commuting somewhere might feel like getting things done – “I’m moving forward!” – but actually it’s sunk cost that you accept because the value of the thing you’re travelling to is still greater than the cost. Parking cost £4.40. And I listened to this lecture for about 1.5 hours. So that’s 3 hours of time for 1.5 hours of learning. Compare this to the amount of time I could have spent learning the information at home – 3 hours for 3 hours, it starts looking like I should have stayed at home. The weird thing is, I don’t feel like I get a lot of stuff done if I’ve just sat at my computer all day. It doesn’t have the gravitas of telling yourself, “I went to a conference to listen to an expert.” The problem is that I’ve attached some inherent value to “listening to an expert,” where really there is none. The value is in the content that the expert can get into our heads. I somehow feel that because this guy is an expert, he can teach me more content than just a pdf. And the conference makes it seem important. I’m an important person with all these other important businessmen, gleaning some knowledge from an expert. You can’t feel that important sitting at your computer at home, reading a pdf.

2. My route home can take me either two ways: a longer route where I can move more quickly, or a shorter route that goes through a road with huge speed-bumps that I need to take at around 5 mph. I always go the fast route: it just feels like I’m getting home quicker: I’m going faster, after all!

I recently found out, though, that the speed-bump route is quicker. Even with this new information, I still sometimes don’t believe it and go the route where I can travel quicker – it just feels quicker.

I’ve even heard of some people, waiting for a late bus, who actually walk to the next bus station so that they can get the bus further down the line. So that that they can catch the same bus just from the next station… only the walk to the next bus station makes them feel like they’ll get to their destination quicker.

 

Our feelings/intuitions can be sneaky. And maybe the most sneaky thing about them is that because they’re decisions made on feelings, we don’t consciously realise we’ve made them. We don’t rationally study the decision making, because it’s a case that’s been opened and closed within the intuitive realm. It’s only when we either catch ourselves making them, or look back in hindsight, that we can see.