Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Sherlock Holmes

As a prototype for great minds

Sherlock Holmes provides an excellent illustration of the differences between the highly intelligent and the common man. True, his fictional adventures must be taken with a grain of salt; in particular, there is a lot of exaggeration—but such is often the case with illustration. Consider the following items behind his success:

  1. He puts enormous efforts into gathering knowledge likely to be relevant occasionally, e.g. of tobacco ashes. Similarly, the typical [5] will do a lot of reading concerning his own field of work and related areas, allowing himself to more easily handle situations he has not yet encountered in practice. A [3], on the other hand, is largely ignorant, gathers knowledge only on a need-to-know basis, takes a lot longer to adapt, and seldom does a thorough job of catching up.

  2. He can differ between what actually is important and what merely seems important—and is almost ridiculed by the ignorants for this. This is a long-standing irritation of mine, in particular at [E4]: Most people make superficial judgments on importance, overlook what truly matters, fail to consider details, etc.—worse, they actually complain that the more far-sighted would focus on unimportant details and not see the big picture... They choose the shiny and glittery crystal bowl over the raw five-carat diamond.

  3. He is more interested in the “why” than the “how” and “what”. Once he has the why, the latter are usually easy to find out. In real life, most people, like Doyle’s police men, ignorantly focus on the how and what, giving themselves an incomplete and faulty understanding, and causing faulty conclusions and actions.

  4. When he saw a probable benefit, he put in mountains of work, not even shrinking before physical exertion and danger; when he saw no hope of benefit, he did not. Again, most people in real life are either hard-working, and work hard regardless, often wasting time, efforts, and money; or lazy, and work lightly regardless. Brighter minds follow Holmes’ example and work hard when warranted, else they relax—unfortunately, because others fail to realize what is important (cf. above), the bright few are often accused of being lazy, lacking dedication, or similar.

  5. He thinks before he acts. He knows that the time spent planning on how to do something right (as opposed to just doing it) almost always pays off; similarly, as above, he knows that time spent on finding the right thing to do (as opposed to just doing something) almost always pays off. This need for planning is lost on most people; and, again, those who do plan, are often accused of laziness or urged to stop “wasting time” and “start working”.

A corollary of the above: Holmes was not satisfied before he had an explanation that was consistent with all the facts—whereas the police was content with an explanation that covered most facts. This point is probably the best characterization of his philosophy. The corollary also illustrates common real-life failings: People do jump to conclusion, fail to consider special cases, complications, etc..

Other illustrating features are Holmes’ impatience with lesser minds, his eccentricity, and his not overly high opinion of women—all things common among the highly intelligent. (Note that, unlike the above, these are not necessarily laudable characteristics.)

Flaws of Holmes

Holmes also, interestingly, displays a few common flaws:

  1. He is loath to explain the “why” behind his actions, and to inform his co-investigators of the current state of his thoughts. This unnecessarily annoys and antagonizes people. Presumably, however, Doyle had external reasons: he wanted to keep the readers out of the know until the end of the book/story. Real-life people would do well to consider that they are not authors of detective stories (with rare exceptions).

  2. When first meeting someone, he often jumps to conclusions based on what is merely one possible explanation. (Ironically, this is the opposite of what he does in the actual cases.) Presumably, this too was done for the benefit of the readers—drama, not education.


    This is a common problem in real life. I once illustrated this for requirements (to counter the [prodMan]s’ excuse “technically, it is ambiguous, but it is obvious what I mean”) this way: If a requirement document of 200 sentences contains 10 % ambiguous sentences, all with an 80 % and a 20 % probability meaning, then always choosing the 80 % meaning (the “obvious” one) leads to a 1 - 0.8^20 ~ 0.99 = 99 % probability of at least one error. There is, further, an expectation value of four errors. In contrast, for an individual ambiguous sentence, the error probability is 20 % and the expectation value 0.2 errors.

    What works well for individual cases, need not work at all in larger accumulations.

    (Lamentably, it was my impression that the [prodMan] did not actually understand this explanation. Possibly, the math was to much for them.)


Interestingly, Holmes repeatedly complained to Dr. Watson, the ostensible author, that his writings were too aimed at the masses, and lacked scientific value. Doyle humorously criticizing himself?

Example of jumping to conclusions

An interesting example of Holmesian style jumping-to-conclusions:

Someone seeing me buying groceries yesterday [this was written, I believe, in late 2006], may have noticed a bump on my forehead and the marks of glasses on my nose (but no glasses). A further inspection would have shown a small wound on one my knuckles, and the conclusion is clear: I was recently in a fight, my glasses are broken; but, as I seem to be otherwise unhurt, the fight must have soon been interrupted by others. Presumably, I got hit twice (forehead, glasses), and had time for one hit of my own (knuckles). The other party started the affair (because he had time to land more hits). Likely, my opponent was very large—I am 6’3" and got hit high. Further, I at least partially managed to move out of the way of the blows—a direct hit from a half-giant probably would have done more damage.

Adding a stricter analysis changes the picture: Because there are still marks on my nose from the glasses, one of the following seems plausible:

  1. The event was very recent, possibly within the last half-hour. This is not consistent with my good temper.

  2. I am usually constantly wearing glasses (leading to near-permanent marks), implying that I am in great need of them. Then how come I do not appear handicapped by their disappearance, and why do I not use the spare that I almost certainly would have?

  3. I am not or not desperately in need of glasses, but have worn a pair too recently for the marks too fade. Possibly, reading glasses or sun glasses have caused the marks—but then their absence no longer supports the fight hypothesis!

Both 2. and 3. are true, and explained by my having switched to contacts before leaving my apartment.

What about the bump and the knuckles? Well, I hit my head on a beam [?] on the cellar stairs; I then, as an automatic reaction to the pain, briefly “saw red” and hit the beam with my fist.