Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Why Sherlock Holmes makes sense out of Conan Doyle.

One of the many non-Sherlockian podcasts I enjoy is Penn Jillette's twice-weekly rambles on Penn's Sunday School. Penn is one of those fellows whom, even if you don't always agree with him, you have to give credit for at least trying to think a thing through. He is a very intelligent fool, which is what the world needs more of, and some things he said lately upon the subject of science really nailed Sherlock Holmes for me.

Sherlock Holmes, we will all certainly agree, is a man of science. He draws his detective skills from all those branches of knowledge that prove useful to him. Those who dislike Holmes usually say things much like Lestrade or that goose salesman, who called Holmes "Mr. Cocksure." They consider Sherlock Holmes a bit arrogant in the fact that he provides answers to things that are a mystery to them. And yet what does Sherlock Holmes love?

Things that are a mystery to him.

Sherlock Holmes loves not knowing a thing, which is the true secret of all great scientists: They know that they don't know things, and they really want to find out the answers to those mysteries. Anyone claiming to actually know everything and also be a man of science is lying about one of those things: science is about using the scientific method to solve those nagging mysteries of life. If there is no mystery, there is no need for the scientific method, nor scientists.

This was the point Penn made that rang so true about Holmes as I listened to it today. But as I ran that thought through my mind, something else he said came back to me, and it solved something that has been puzzling many a Sherlockian like myself from the first time they learn Conan Doyle was a fairy-believing spiritualist. How could a man with such "woo-woo" beliefs create a Sherlock Holmes?

Well, if you're as old as I, you might remember all of the scientists studying ESP and the like, back in the 1970s. A guy named Uri Gellar was bending spoons with his mind as scientists watched in amazement and tried to study him. Men and women of science, like Conan Doyle. People who saw a mystery, like little girls photographing fairies and set out to find proof. Just like Sherlock Holmes and the demon hound of the Baskervilles, Conan Doyle could not stay away from such a thing.

But here's the thing about many a pure soul attempting to study ESP, or fairies, or spirits in a scientific manner, that Penn pointed out: You can be as scientific as you want, but if you trust another human being not to lie to you about what's going on from the outset, you've lost the battle. Many an ESP researcher trusted that Uri Gellar wasn't doing a simple magic trick. Conan Doyle trusted two little girls that they wouldn't lie to his face about how they took photos. The impulse to investigate the mystery was there, just like Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes, however, had a "No ghosts need apply" philosophy that allowed him to look harder for the lie, while Conan Doyle's hope that magical creatures might exist made him much less cynical. And wrong. But, hey, if the only way not to lose is not to play. Conan Doyle, like Holmes, loved to play the Game.

While Conan Doyle often said that he was not Sherlock Holmes, to be sure, but the spirit of Holmes came out of Doyle, and you can see evidence of that, even when Doyle seemed most foolish. Because you have to be a little bit of a fool to admit you don't know something and seek out the answers to that thing. T'were Sherlock Holmes the true know-it-all that some know-it-alls often seem to see him as, he never would have left the house to investigate a case.

So we should all be willing fools at some point . . . for science!

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