The plague of misinformation that hit us the same time as the actual pandemic last year was historic, and shows no signs of letting up. But is it possible that this isn't new and we're just discovering how ignorant as a species we can be?
Remember back in 2008, when a British TV station polled about 3000 people and found that 58% of them thought Sherlock Holmes was a real person? Well, I'm sure the advent of BBC Sherlock and Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes movies help fix that somewhat, with more people thinking of him as a TV or movie character, but the poll, which also had about a fifth of its British respondents thinking Winston Churchill was a fictional character (Well, he did meet Doctor Who!) did make a definite statement.
For some reason, this morning I was reminded of the time I was in Toronto for a Sherlock Holmes conference in the nineties and bought a unique collection of Holmes stories in a bookstore near a local college. The clerk was quick to tell me about Conan Doyle's opium addiction in great detail and with such authority that even though I knew not a word of it was true, I just let him go on to see where this was going. I was not a good steward of Sherlockian knowledge that day, and just left him with his beliefs, bemused at just how weird the whole experience was. Hopefully some other attendee of the conference set him straight later that day.
Over the years I have occasionally heard a Sherlockian object to "playing the Game" as pretending Watson wrote the stories is often called, expressing the fear that people might start to believe the jest. And every time, I would immediately react with "There might be one or two folks who get tricked for a moment, but people aren't that stupid."
These days, one starts to have doubts. If a certain network, a certain political party's "It" boy, and a few other folks all signed on to Sherlock Holmes being a real person whom history had conspired to turn into a fictional character, Sherlockian conferences would start to be an entirely different creature than what we've known in the past. Conan Doyle would be seen by at least 30% of America as the greatest hoaxter since PT Barnum (all the while ignoring the greater hoaxter who just pulled off this hoax). And the Flat Earthers would get a real run for their money.
The thing is, I still have a hard time ever seeing that happening, as purveyors of false narratives really don't want Sherlock Holmes becoming a popular hero of our time, whether he's real or not. The more folks who believe in Sherlock Holmes out there, whether they believe him real or a marvelous character of fiction, the more folks there are that believe in what he was all about: Exposing the false narrative. The demon hound is just a big dog. The devil in town is just the vapor of an African herb.
The gag of pretending Sherlock Holmes is a historical character finds its most piquant flavor in the fact that Sherlock Holmes himself would be all about exposing a historical Sherlock Holmes as a fake.
We are not a perfect species. Even the best of us has smarter days and dumber days. But do we have to worry about Sherlock Holmes escaping into reality in people's minds and destroying civilization as we know it?
I don't think so. We should probably try to help poor Conan Doyle get past those opium addict rumors, should they rise up in bookstores. Celebrity gossip is the worst.