Sherlock Holmes ‘vs’ The Scientific Method

The Case-Book of Mutual Exclusivity.

In discussions regarding theoretical science , I’ve more than once seen people quote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional sleuth, in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes collection where his titular character states,

When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”― Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

However, this approach to deduction is only relevant in a scenario where an absolute answer exists and all of the variables can be known. A “whodunit” by definition includes a who and what they did. A well defined leading question with a knowable answer and the assurance that sufficient evidence exists to determine what the truth is.

Simplistically, if you’re building a 1000 piece puzzle, all those pieces are die cut from the same printed cardboard image and fit together. If a piece is missing, you know it must exist. Even if the answer is that the dog ate it or the box of pieces was incomplete, the fact that at some point in manufacturing the puzzle was a complete image is evidence enough to prove it did exist.

But that is not science.

In my opinion, Richard Feynman inadvertently said it best:

It has not yet become obvious to me that there’s no real problem. I cannot define the real problem; therefore, I suspect there’s no real problem, but I’m not sure there’s no real problem.” — “Simulating Physics with Computers”. Richard P. Feynman, “International Journal of Theoretical Physics”, Volume 21, 1982.

Although he was referring to quantum mechanics specifically and not about the scientific method itself, the truth is in the sentiment that he could not even decide if a problem existed at all without defining what the problem is. That kind of thinking does not fit a detective, but does sound like a scientist!

There is certainly some straightforward problem solving that is attributed to science, but the scientific method clearly includes the creation of the question itself and determining if the question even has an answer.

 If Sherlock Holmes was using the scientific method:

  1. Have an observation or some motivation to believe there was a mystery to be solved.
  2. Hypothesize what this crime would entail.
  3. Make a prediction regarding how one could go about verifying the existence of that crime.
  4. Then prove experimentally that the crime is being or has been committed.

In this scenario, he would potentially be the one committing the crime to prove his hypothesis. Or perhaps he could not prove that the crime existed at all, making for a very confusing and ungratifying mystery.

The Hitchhiker's Guide so humorously illustrates the importance of the scientific method since the ultimate answer discovered meant nothing without the ultimate question to accompany it. However absurd that might seem, our existence does not depend on our understanding of it. René Descartes' declaration "Cogito, ergo sum" (I think therefore I am) is as good an explanation of consciousness as we have ever had, yet we are as of yet incapable of explaining why that is the case.

So when someone tries to equate sleuthing with science, imagine if Sherlock Holmes stumbled across the Heart of Gold. That mashup would read like a Lewis Carroll fantasy, but I would still expect the perpetrator to be the two headed president of the universe every time. Or a potted plant that suddenly appeared out of thin air. Either is just as unlikely, except the latter perhaps more so, unless there is an unbirthday involved. 😵

The answers we seek, whether we can perceive them or not, already exist all around us. What we are really doing with science is trying to do is discover the correct questions to ask that will lead us to them.

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