Unreasoning Sherlock Holmes
Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012
Brian McCuskey is an associate professor of English at Utah State University.
While researching Sherlock Holmes for a book project, Brian McCuskey uncovered argument threads between evolutionary biologists and creationists about intelligent design laced with references to the great literary detective. He followed the online posts only to unravel more footnotes and finger pointing between the two camps claiming the fictional investigator’s theories prove their side is right.
McCuskey, an associate professor of English at Utah State University, wondered if he was on to something. What began as a passing observation became a mound of evidence showing the literary detective was being used by both sides to validate their theories.
“It wasn’t just a reference or two; it was a constant pattern,” McCuskey said.
When scientists and intelligent design supporters square off, they often pepper their arguments with Sherlock Holmes quotes as if claiming their statements are coming from a place of logical certainty. One of the most famous instances occurred in 2005 when the Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania was challenged in federal court on its required teaching of intelligent design in biology classes. Scientific experts cited passages from Sherlock Holmes novels to support their cause.
“The two teams are trying to recruit Sherlock Holmes to their team,” McCuskey said. “Obviously the team that has Sherlock Holmes on it will be seen as the most credible. The reasoning follows: the more I am doing what Sherlock Holmes does, the more scientific I must be.”
However, in these disputes, the fact that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character is not broached — nor is his scientific reasoning questioned. For instance, in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes makes the dubious inference that his sidekick Dr. Watson, a veteran, must have recently served in Afghanistan on account of his tan. In McCuskey’s investigation into the use of Sherlock Holmes by both evolutionary biologists and intelligent design supporters, he uncovered multiple offenses by both camps of using his quotes out of context or stretching them to serve their purpose.
“They never point out that the theories Sherlock Holmes [uses] are not that scientific,” McCuskey said. “Nobody on either side comes in and says, ‘this quote is bunk, it doesn’t work in principle, it’s not scientific.’ They’re basically drawn onto really shaky scientific grounds in order to have Sherlock Holmes on their team.”
McCuskey followed his hunch, and authored “Sherlock Holmes and Intelligent Design” about Sherlock Holmes’ unexpected role in evolutionary science. The article was published in the Quarterly Review of Biology in September. The piece was an effort by McCuskey to encourage the humanities and sciences to work together to “combat the corrosive influence of pseudoscientific reasoning on our students and the general public.” In it, he explains how Sherlock Holmes is never wrong — even when he is.
“No matter how improbable or illogical, the Holmesian point always applies, because there is no alternative: the only possibilities that exist in the stories are the ones to which Holmes refers as he eliminates them, leaving only his solution,” McCuskey writes.
He notes that both intelligent design supporters and critics leave the inventor of Sherlock Holmes — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — out of the conversation entirely. Doyle was a physician and author, and promoted investigations of paranormal activity. McCuskey argues leaving Doyle out is necessary for believers and nonbelievers to protect Holmes’ reputation.
“Because both parties employ the detective to illustrate the same purely scientific method — even if that method leads them in opposite directions — neither party can allow the eccentric author’s spiritualism to contaminate his iconic character’s rationalism,” McCuskey writes.
However, McCuskey argues Sherlock Holmes is not and never has been separate from religion. Doyle wove religious references into his novels from the beginning. Doyle’s first book introducing the character of Sherlock Holmes, includes the newly-established Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a backdrop, he said.
McCuskey believes Holmes must be removed from the debate over intelligent design because the detective’s methods are not entirely scientific, and cites the danger of using pseudoscientific reasoning in classrooms.
“Doyle’s detective gives a false sense of knowing something, which is the very last thing anyone in American higher education needs to encourage — and so let us eliminate him from both evolutionary and design arguments and see what remains,” he writes.
McCuskey’s book project, Backward Reason: Sherlock Holmes, Spiritualism, and the Pseudoscientific Method, explores the critical and cultural reception of Sherlock Holmes over time. He focuses on how the literary detective is used as a reference point for reasoning and understanding.
McCuskey has received support from USU’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences in the form of a sabbatical and two travel grants for the monograph. The book will be his first. In a sense, the project is a return to his roots — as a youngster, the first book given to McCuskey was The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes.
“It’s taken a long time to get back to Sherlock Holmes,” McCuskey said.
Read McCuskey’s article on Sherlock Holmes and intelligent design online.
Writer: Kristen Munson, (435) 797-0267, email@example.com
Contact: Brian McCuskey, (435) 797-0262, firstname.lastname@example.org