Sherlock Holmes and Facts in Fiction

Neels Blom’s column, “On the Water”, published in Business Day, is always a treat – in a much different way from what his company was more than 25 years ago, when I last met him. As colleagues and friends, we went through the ups and downs of the states of emergency in the 1980s. We shared many laughs, tears and probably too much tannins from charred oak barrels…

I do suspect, however, that we have drifted apart in terms of our ideas, beliefs and values. Nevertheless, since I believe that there should be no limitations on what should be discussed, I read Blom’s columns as often as I can, even if I disagree with his conclusions and opinions.

Seriously, though, I never have and am not about to start censoring anyone, however much I may differ on their conclusions, political positions or the entertainment value of the lexical legerdemain that conceals biases or prejudices. I, too, have pretty strong prejudices.

There are, however, ideas, claims and statements which are insufficiently secured from scrutiny or criticism. I should probably admit, at this point, that I tend to be more critical of powerful or influential people, those who hold public office or politicians who might have a say on our future.

Setting aside the issue of land reform, which Blom addresses in his column of 5 March 2018, there is a short passage in the column which caused a chuckle. Then I reminded myself that Business Day was the best, and probably the most influential English-language daily newspaper in the country. Because of this, influential people take the newspaper seriously. I should point out that I am a columnist for Business Day, and accept that people may disagree with some of the things I write – and that readers have a right to question my claims, statements and assumptions. So, we should take Blom’s column seriously, if only for the sake of intellectual honesty and integrity.

In his column of 5 March 2018, Blom refers to a quote by Sherlock Holms, in which the fictional character says, “it is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Now, I may disagree with Blom’s conclusions about land reform or over Cyril Ramaphosa, or even the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), but he is entitled to his opinion. Actually, I’m with The Dude on opinions…. I may also differ from him on the application of his HIPPO hypothesis in the 5 March column. I generally agree that one should be sceptical of the opinions of “the highest paid persons”. I also believe, however, that the opinion of a highly paid physicist will always get my attention, before the logical fallacies of those of us who assume that the truth travels through our own digestive tract, and deserves to be splashed on the pages of newspapers – abgesichert.

Speaking of phycisists, I agree with the great physicist of the late 20th century, the late Richard Feynman, that we can have theories (before we have facts), and we are (then) obliged to test our theories against evidence (facts), and (then) when our theories do not hold, we come up (afterwards) with new theories.

For instance, I may have a theory that Afrikaner men all have an interest in preserving the positions of privilege they inherited over 400 years of colonial and settler colonial dominance. Then I test this theory. I read the work of Afrikaners like the late Sampie Terreblanche, or Max du Preez, and my theory is disproved. The evidence does not agree with my theory. I was wrong. All Afrikaner men do not want to preserve the privilege they inherited over 400 years of colonial and settler colonial dominance. My new theory is that only some Afrikaner men may wish to hold onto these privileges. As Mr Feynman said:

“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

So, my criticism is, then, of the logic attributed to Sherlock Holmes, and not directed at Neels Blom. The matter is, of course, not straight-forward. Having pointed out, above, that nothing should be considered as beyond discussion or scrutiny, I want to make the argument that the body of Arthur Conan Doyle’s work on Sherlock Holmes can be situated in a particular historical and scientific tradition.

All works of fiction are influenced by particular historical periods. Charles Dickens’ fiction was essentially a critique of Victorian society. Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote (darkly) about Russian society – especially in St Petersburg. Doyle’s work, in Sherlock Holmes, is redolent with the unquestioned faith in and the obsessive power of logic and rationality as means to keep order, and to prop up the status quo in Victorian England.

There may be those among us who are loyal to the ahistoricty of extreme empiricism; people who believe that “facts speak for themselves” and somehow ignore how we, people, deliberatively and purposefully select and arrange facts to tell the stories we want to tell. This, actually, is what Doyle sets out to achieve with Sherlock Holmes.

The fictional character, and Doyle’s fictional tales are less driven by Sherlock Holmes’ inductive or deductive methods, but by almost pure and logically untested abductions. Doyle’s fiction, and the detective’s genius, are the result of the writer’s purposeful arrangement of facts, in order for Holmes to guess correctly every time. In this way, Doyle deliberatively tells a single tale: that of Sherlock Holmes’ genius. The author also places limitations on any digressional interpretations of behaviour that may question the inevitability of the fictional tale’s outcomes. In other words, the fictional Sherlock Holmes is always right because the author wrote it that way.

Doyle purposefully establishes the veracity of Holmes’ methods, and presents them as “elementary,” “ridiculously simple” and even commonsensical. In the latter sense, common sense is drawn from the Italian senso comune, which, in my interpretation is devoid of any positive connotations of even-mindedness, and refers instead to a body of ideas, beliefs and values that are commonly held by a particular group of people, who aspire to promote a particular vision of the world.

In this sense, then, it is probably no surprise that the logic and method of the fictional character, imbued as it is with positivism and scientism, continues to inspire many people. I may have problems with scientism (which is different from being scientific),  but I’m with Mr Feynman when he said we may start from theories, but if the evidence (the facts) do not support them, we may want to come up with new theories – not the other way around. This leaves me with only one thing to say: Surely you must be joking, Mr Blom.

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