Wednesday 12 August 2020

How to be Smarter Than Sherlock Holmes

In The Adventure of the Priory School, Sherlock Holmes famously makes a false deduction: 

“This track, as you perceive, was made by a rider who was going from the direction of the school.” “Or towards it?” “No, no, my dear Watson. The more deeply sunk impression is, of course, the hind wheel, upon which the weight rests. You perceive several places where it has passed across and obliterated the more shallow mark of the front one. It was undoubtedly heading away from the school.” 

That, of course, does not work. Whichever direction the bike was travelling in, the rear wheel will over-ride the marks left by the front wheel.

However, with that unique combination of genius and superficiality (I had nearly said, frivolity) that is, perhaps, the hallmark of my thinking, I realised, this morning as I cycled over the fells, how Conan Doyle could have made this clue work.

For I observed that bicycle tracks leading up to an obstacle or a hazard give very definite clues about the direction of travel. That is because the obstacle or hazard appears differently, depending on the direction from which one is approaching it, and therefore the cyclist will steer a different path accordingly. For example, I saw a cycle track that went into a puddle over a steep lip, and emerged on a gentle gradient on the other side. That makes perfect sense if the cyclist had approached from one direction, from which the steep lip was invisible, but was implausible from the other direction - indeed riding a bike up that lip would have been not only an odd course to pick, but also almost impossible.  From the other direction, the lip would have been very obvious, as would a slight deviation to the right that would have avoided it.

Why blog about this? There are, of course several reasons (my late father always maintained that there were always two reasons for any course of action: the good reason and the real reason...). The real reasons, in this case are my inherent superficiality (or even frivolity, see above) and the fact that I have to blog about something (I have set myself a target), so whatever comes to mind is grist to that particular mill.

The good reason is that this is an elegant metaphor for understanding other people. When someone approaches an obstacle or hazard, the course they steer can tell us a lot about their approach.  For example, I am rather gung-ho with a low level of risk aversion. I am unlikely to notice many hazards, until I am almost on top of them. I may well be the archetype envisioned by whoever created the aphorism 'Fools rush in...' And my point is that someone observing me, who did not know me, could quickly learn that about me, simply by watching my headlong rush towards a potentially risky situation.

Whereas a wiser person might start planning for contingencies a bit earlier; and a highly risk-averse person might avoid embarking on the journey altogether. 

The way in which we typically perceive hazards or obstacles can be revealing, too. As we enter a recession, some people are concerned about the macro-economic picture, others are concerned about the organisations that may go under, others about are excited about the political opportunity this gives them, whilst others are lamenting the job losses and the plight of young people entering a shrinking job market. Each of these is a perfectly understandable reaction (though not all equally laudable, of course). But each reaction also tells us something about how someone is seeing the situation, and may well shed light on what their biases and values are.

Which reminds me of something I learned many years ago, on a writing workshop run by Bob McKee (which also featured a fascinating scene-by-scene analysis of Casablanca, but that's another story).  Bob said: True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure - the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character's essential nature.

So if you want to be smarter than Sherlock Holmes, avoid deducing anything from clues that don't work; but do pay attention to how the cyclist approaches a hazard: it may tell you a lot about his or her direction of travel.

With thanks to Felix Hanspach, Patrick Hendry and Tim Collins for sharing their photography via Unsplash.

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