Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Replication

Sherlock_holmes_pipe_hatIn 1959 at the University of Cambridge, C.P. Snow delivered his (now infamous) Rede lecture on the Two Cultures of science and humanities (or his derogatory term for the latter — ‘literary intellectuals’). Although Snow was both a writer and a scientist, his lecture was largely anti-humanities. It is unclear if the divide between science and humanities has narrowed since Snow’s time, but his influence remains even in the ‘third culture’ that is trying to bridge the gap. This year, the divide was evident in Steven Pinker’s patronizing olive branch to the humanities. He advocated that “science is not your enemy”, but didn’t bother to highlight the commonalities of the two fields, only suggesting how the humanities can be more like science, without any serious discussion of what science can learn from the humanities. I feel like this is not productive, and if we want unity then we should look for lessons in both directions.

A good starting point is to look at an ongoing crisis in science — the replicability crisis in psychology — and see if the humanities can offer some insight. Unfortunately, my knowledge of literature is limited to popular culture, and so I will turn to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is not new to psychology; psychologists evaluated the fictional character’s IQ (Radford, 1999), tested the rigour of his methods (Snyder, 2004), used him as a quintessential model of expertise (Didierjean & Gober, 2008), and even suggested that neuroscientists are just like Holmes in their search for clues about the brain’s innerworkings (Kempster, 2006). It is not surprising to see so much cross-talk between psychology and literature because in many ways we can think of both as ways to explore and share insights into human nature. Of course, I am far from unique in suggesting this, there is at least one popular blog — Maria Konnikova’s Literally Psyched — that draws insights from literature and tests those insights with psychology. Maria can’t resist Sherlock either, recently publishing a self-help book offering you the secrets to a Holmesian mind. However, my goal isn’t to learn secrets to good science from the fictional character’s deductive prowess.
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