Sherlock Holmes on practical science literacy


A comment reminded me of this passage from A Study in Scarlet:

[Sherlock Holmes’s] ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it…I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.  A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands on it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order.  It is a mistake to think that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent.  Depend upon it – there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before.  It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

“But the Solar System!” [Watson] protested.

“What the deuce is it to me? You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.[Emphasis added-PK]

So the question for the day is…of what use is knowledge that has no practical value? Why teach it? Why care if people don’t believe it?


  1. Often what gets lost in this simplistic interpretation of Holmes is his qualification – “to me or to my work.” It is up to the individual to determine what knowledge is useful to them, and it is difficult – I think – for people to properly judge utility of knowledge prior to being exposed to it.

    This perspective also attributes to knowledge a very literal sense of application or utility. Keep the knowledge in its precious silos, be they in the brain attic, the university, or the public sphere. Heaven forfend reasoning and/or knowledge in one field could be applied elsewhere.

    Then there’s the matter of taking as a role model a socially maladjusted individual who, in at least the two current televised interpretations, is considered some sort of functional sociopath.

    1. Thanks for the response. FYI, I was using this quote as food for thought, not necessarily because I view Holmes as a ‘role model’ (although he was my hero as a kid!). I agree that it is difficult to judge the utility of knowledge before being exposed to it. But we need to make decisions anyway. In this context, why evolution and not an extra unit on anatomy or microbiology? Why, ultimately, do we need scientific knowledge? From what I’ve read in public understanding of science, these types of debates occur all the time. This is what I was getting at in my whimsical post.

  2. The simplest response would be that we have no way of deciding, a priori, what will and will not be practical knowledge. Some avenues of inquiry may seem more obvious than others, but many things that would once have been labelled ‘impractical’ are now bedrocks of our science and technology (most of the work done during the Scientific Revolution springs to mind; Gallileo’s work had little obvious practical application at the time, for instance, and McClellan and Dorn argue – persuasively, I think – that craftspeople and engineers of the time had little need for the physics of the day).
    David also touches, in an oblique fashion, on the problem of deciding what is ‘practical’. As an extreme example, parents withholding medical care in favor of faith healing may not consider research on antibiotics to be very practical. Does that mean we should abandon that line of research? Clearly not, but why? Given the generally low levels of scientific literacy in the general public, should we decide what research to pursue by majority vote?
    I suggest that the pursuit of ‘practical’ knowledge is a blind alley. Fund all kinds of research, blue-sky research and applied, and let the practical applications arise organically. Give more grants in smaller amounts (and dismantle the grant review system in favor of something more sane, like a check on basic soundness of the planned research: Scientific and technological processes have, I believe, shown themselves to be emergent phenomena that receive little value from well-meaning but ultimately damaging oversight.

    1. Hi Steven. Thanks for the response, and sorry for the slow reply. I’ve been traveling for work. I totally hear what you’re saying with respect to research funding. I was not, however, talking about grants or how the government should approach research. It was more about education and public science literacy. We have to make a decision to teach some things and not others. And in that case, as many scholars have argued, practicality can be a consideration. It’s not the only one of course. But it can have some place.

      Regarding your proposal on how to fund research, I can’t say I have a strong opinion on that. But it does sound interesting.

      Thanks again.

  3. Praj,
    I was replying more to the ‘why care if people don’t believe it’; people routinely critique research (like mine!) because they don’t believe it or think it’s practical. But as to whether something should be taught … I still think that ‘practical’ is a misleading idea. I’ll use medical examples to stick to a theme: teaching nurses to use Wordperfect 5.1 and DOS might have been a supremely practical idea in 1989, but these days it would be hopelessly outdated. What’s practical today is outdated tomorrow (next-gen sequencing today, who knows what tomorrow?). You could probably speak more usefully of ‘fundamental’, with *one* defining characteristic of fundamental being ‘unlikely to change in the near future’. Anatomy is fundamental, since it’s unlikely the human body is going to undergo radical population-level shifts in the space of a few years.
    You could also ask that fundamental skills be applicable in a day-to-day work environment, which (I believe) is where much of the talk of ‘practical’ comes in. This, too, has definitional challenges. You could argue that obscure diseases, for example, should receive little attention because doctors will never see a case of them. And then, you get a German doctor diagnosing cobalt intoxication because of something that he saw *on TV*. ( That’s why notions of ‘practical’ bug me: there’s very often a counterexample on its way, you just haven’t seen it yet.
    Since this blog is about evolution, the same problem applies. Does an understanding of evolution impact day-to-day care? But an understanding of evolution is not only useful for understanding the bases of many medical phenomena (like the rise of MRSA, for example), but it informs the way in which doctors absorb and explain scientific information to themselves, each other, and their patients. Steve Novella explains much of this better than I ever could:
    Holmes may think he’s smart because he avoids knowledge he’ll never use; I say that he’s just lucky to have a writer skilled enough to avoid putting him in situations that exceed his narrow worldview.

    1. Thanks for the fantastic comment Steven. You’re raised many good points. Let me respond to the point about medicine here, and the practical issue later. In his post, I see Novella waffling quite a bit, and he can’t quite make a strong case. He wants to insist that evolution and understanding scientific principles (which he doesn’t really define) are critical to being a good doctor, but knows there are many cases where it’s simply not true. In the end he has to admit that people compartmentalize, and he unnecessarily insults many doctors by calling them mere “technicians.”

      Let me personalize a bit. Both of my parents are medical doctors. Given that my heritage is Indian, some 60% of my family friends are doctors. I literally grew up around doctors. I have discussed evolution with my dad, and I can honestly say he doesn’t know that much. And he ran a very successful private practice for 30 years.

      If (as Novella admits) that people compartmentalize, and if we have strong evidence that some creationists can be wildly successful doctors, how on Earth can he generalize?

      Anyway…thanks again for the great comment. I’ll respond to the issue about practicality in a post.

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