Sep 17 2021

Spock vs Holmes

You’ve probably noticed that it’s very difficult to write a character who is extremely intelligent in some way. It’s easy to make a character knowledgeable, because you can just put a lot of facts into their mouth. The character Arthur P. Dietrich (played by Stephen Landesberg) on the sitcom Barney Miller always had a relevant fact at the ready. He seemed to know everything. What’s difficult is making a character wise, or giving them the ability to think in complex and logical ways. More specifically, it’s difficult to write a character that’s smarter than the writer themselves.

For me the most impressively written iconically smart character is Sherlock Holmes, written by Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s not impressive that Holmes always solved his cases or had a lot of factual knowledge; that’s the easy part. The author knows who did it and can just have their detective character get to the right answer. What is truly impressive is how Holmes worked through the cases, using genuinely impressive logic and reasoning. Holmes famously refers to his process as “deduction” but he was really mostly using inference to the most likely answer.

I admit I may be partial to Holmes because Doyle was a physician, and I can recognize a lot of clinical logic in Holmes’ thinking. In fact, I took a course on Sherlock Holmes in medical school, where we would make an analogy to how Holmes solved a particular case to how a physician might solve a clinical case. Here are some choice bits of logical advice from Holmes:

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” — “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” (1891)

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” — “A Scandal in Bohemia” (1891)

“How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” — The Sign of the Four (1890)

Often his cases turned on a bit of valuable logic. For example, knowing that evidence which is absent (like the dog that did not bark) can be as important as evidence that is present. Another case turned on realizing that you must always consider alternative hypotheses, even when there is an obvious (and perhaps wrong) answer in front of you. Some of his axioms are downright skeptical, such as “It is a mistake to confound strangeness with mystery.” — A Study in Scarlet (1887). This is a good takedown of anomaly hunting, frequently used by conspiracy theorists.

The great irony is that Holmes was more logical and skeptical than Doyle himself, who famously fell for the Cottingley fairy hoax, and believed in spiritualism. He failed to apply his own logical principles when it came to his personal sacred beliefs. In fact, many think that Doyle did not even like the character of Holmes, who was intended to be a caricature of excessive reliance on logic and reason.

How does Holmes compare to another famously logical character, Mr. Spock from Star Trek? Actually Spock, I would argue, is more wise than clever in the way Holmes was. The Vulcan philosophy of logic was mostly about removing the negative influence of emotion, and they have a highly developed ethical philosophy. But Spock was not a master detective in the way Holmes was. He did occasionally share some fine bits of logical wisdom:

“To expect sense from two mentalities of such extreme points of view is not logical.”

“Humans do have an amazing capacity for believing what they choose and excluding that which is painful.”

“I fail to comprehend your indignation, sir. I have simply made the logical deduction that you are a liar.”

How was he at deduction? It turns out, not very good. Fellow skeptic, Julia Galef, for her book, The Scout Mindset, tallied up every time Spock made an actual prediction or estimated the probability of something. She found a negative correlation between his confidence level and the probability of something being true. So where did Spock go wrong?

I don’t think there is necessarily a flaw in the process or philosophy that Spock was portrayed as following. Rather, this appears to be a somewhat sloppy writing device. If you have a character known for their logic and knowledge, able to make complex mathematical calculations in their head, and they pronounce that the probability of success is “less than seven thousand to one” or some other mathematically precise answer, that is a cheap way to generate some drama and tension. The character Spock, in other words, was exploited for dramatic purpose. According to Galef’s analysis, this device was over-used.

This fits with my experience of the show. When Spock said the odds were against the crew, that did not worry me one bit, because Spock was always wrong about such things. I recognized it from experience as a clumsy writing device.  This watered down the drama to nothing. Kirk didn’t even take him seriously in the show, and would ignore his predictions. If he really thought the odds were that low, a good captain would never throw those dice with his crew’s lives on the line.  It would have been much more effective if Spock were usually correct in his predictions, so when he said the odds were against the crew it would cause genuine worry for our beloved characters.

In the end the character of Spock was mostly about the Vulcan philosophy, which promoted peace, coexistence, and rationality. The Vulcans, I think, were meant to represent the ideals of liberal democracy, a frequent theme in Star Trek TOS. Sure, I would have appreciated some more nuanced writing regarding his logic, but that was not really the point of the character.

These are just fictional characters, but how we write such characters says a lot about our culture, beliefs, and philosophy. I also find it interesting to think about the art of writing itself, and how creators balance various needs, such as having characters with consistent traits but also creating drama and tension. In the end these are two strong characters who left an impact on our culture, hopefully a positive one.

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