A Study in Deduction

No, I’m not talking about the action of subtraction as in a tax deduction… BORING. I’m talking about the art of observation, a process of reasoning from premises to a conclusion, from ignorance to knowledge and understanding.

A Conversation with Suspense Novelist R. Jerome Brooks | Man ...

What do the popular genres of thriller, crime, and legal dramas all have in common? They use suspense to hold the audience’s attention, telling them that if they keep watching they will find the answers to their questions. That is the ultimate goal of deduction: a search for the truth in a complex situation, making inferences of what is known in order to discover the unknown. As the private detective Sherlock Holmes famously said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

I recently finished reading a book by Amy Herman entitled, “Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life.” She uses the medium of art to teach people how to better assess, analyze, articulate, and ask questions. These skills are beneficial to anyone in any type of career. From nurses to law enforcement officers to CEOs, she now travels the country presenting her workshop on perception. For a broad overview, check out her TED talk below.

Joseph Bell - Inspiration for Sherlock Holmes

In her book, she talks about a lesser known figure named Dr. Joseph Bell who inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his creation of Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Bell was one of Doyle’s professors at the University of Edinburgh Medical School. After attending his lectures, Doyle became an assistant in Dr. Bell’s ward. It was here that he was able to witness firsthand the man’s ability to make deductions about patients from observation.

In Doyle’s memoir he recounts an exchange between Dr. Bell and one of his patients:

“Well, my man, you’ve served in the army.”
“Aye, sir.”
“Not long discharged?”
“No, sir.”
“A Highland regiment?”
“Aye, sir.”
“A non-com. officer?”
“Aye, sir.”
“Stationed at Barbados?”
“Aye, sir.”

You see, gentlemen, the man was a respectful man but did not remove his hat. They do not in the army, but he would have learned civilian ways had he been long discharged. He has an air of authority and he is obviously Scottish. As to Barbados, his complaint is elephantiasis, which is West Indian and not British.

If you want to learn more about deduction, another book I recommend is “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.” While Visual Intelligence has more exercises and talks through more real-life scenarios, the author of Mastermind, Maria Konnikova, is a psychologist and explores things like memory and the concept of the mind palace and how to categorize information and be more effective in your thinking. It is somewhat of a Sherlock Holmes case-study and talks through different crimes he solves and how he does it and how to shift from a “Watson System” to a “Sherlock System.”

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BBC Sherlock – highly recommend

Watson system is the default. It’s lazy. It takes shortcuts. It is easily distracted. It doesn’t learn from mistakes. The Sherlock system takes effort. It turns the Watson system completely on its head. It is rigorous and doesn’t overlook anything. It weighs all possibilities. It engages all of its senses. It asks questions. And as the famous quote goes, “You see, but you do not observe.”

[Excerpt: “A Scandal in Bohemia” – Sherlock explains to Watson the difference between seeing and observing]

“When I hear you give your reasons,” I remarked, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning, I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.”

“Quite so,” he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an  armchair. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”

Image result for stairs noir | Spandau, Noir, Film noir


“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many? I don’t know.”

Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

So then, how can we possibly gain these skills for ourselves? Practice. Practice. Practice. Paying more attention to details and our surroundings. Body language. Facial expressions. Noticing changes from the norm. Recognizing biases and looking at a situation from multiple perspectives. Making connections between what we see and what we already know. Better framing questions to fill in the gaps of what we do not yet know.

Now, go! Make haste! The game is afoot! No time to waste!

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