Sherlock Holmes and the Power of Observation

Sherlock Holmes and the Power of Observation

Without doubt, Sherlock Holmes is one of my favourite literary creations. As a character he embodies so many interesting quirks of personality, emotion and intellect. Arthur Conan Doyle would later come to loath his creation, as he felt Sherlock Holmes had taken over his life. Despite whatever personal cost he endured, I’m thankful for the art he produced. 

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the Sherlock Holmes mythology is how little we notice the one key skill that underpins his famed powers of synthesis and deduction. That skill is observation. Though we laud his ability to create and test theories of crime, we somehow fail to notice just how crucial his powers of observation were to his endeavours. A brief tour through Conan Doyle’s works is an interesting and instructive reminder. 

We can pick up the thread with the public’s first introduction to Holmes’s methods through the eyes of Dr. John Watson, Holmes’s lodger (eventual friend) and our narrator. Notice how amazed Watson is at the thoroughness of his new acquaintance. 

“As he spoke, he whipped a tape measure and a large round magnifying glass from his pocket. With these two implements he trotted noiselessly about the room, sometimes stopping, occasionally kneeling, and once lying flat upon his face. So engrossed was he with his occupation that he appeared to have forgotten our presence, for he chattered away to himself under his breath the whole time, keeping up a running fire of exclamations, groans, whistles, and little cries suggestive of encouragement and of hope. As I watched him I was irresistibly reminded of a pure-blooded well-trained foxhound as it dashes backwards and forwards through the covert, whining in its eagerness, until it comes across the lost scent. For twenty minutes or more he continued his researches, measuring with the most exact care the distance between marks which were entirely invisible to me, and occasionally applying his tape to the walls in an equally incomprehensible manner. In one place he gathered up very carefully a little pile of grey dust from the floor, and packed it away in an envelope. Finally, he examined with his glass the word upon the wall, going over every letter of it with the with the most minute exactness. This done, he appeared to be satisfied, for he replaced his tape and his glass in his pocket. “They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains,” he remarked with a smile. “It’s a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.” (A Study in Scarlet)

Over time Sherlock Holmes forms amazing theories. However, the basis of these theories are solid observations. 

It’s crucial to keep in mind the era in which Sherlock Holmes was written. New sciences were powering the Industrial Revolution that would forever change the way that people lived. The world would soon face two World Wars in quick succession. There was immense pressure on the old world of superstition, fantasy and fable. (It is one of the world’s greatest ironies that Conan Doyle himself would eventually return to mysticism, with an end-of-life fascination in the occult). 

In our uncertain times, I wonder if we’ve again begun to overemphasise the power of emotion, story and fable as a path to accurate information about the world. Without doubt, shared emotion helps us tell better stories, and to give human context to what we see. However, setting aside our best attempts at rational observation in favour of our instincts comes at a cost. In Holmes’s own words... 

“I have no data yet. 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)

In his own way, Conan Doyle was alluding to the human tendency for Confirmation Bias, which is our habit of starting with a theory and then attend only to things that support our theory. Facts that don’t fit are ignored or discarded. Although this may mean we ’feel’ our evidence is right, it can also mean that we are being deceived by our emotional thinking.

Good research can be inspired by emotion, but it must be underpinned by clear-sighted observation. Note that there is a strong distinction between ‘looking’ at something and actually ‘observing’ it. To actively take notice of something is to appreciate all its facets, to connect it to the body of knowledge we build.

(Sherlock) “Quite so,” he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an arm-chair. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”

(Watson) “Frequently.”

(Sherlock) “How often?”

(Watson) “Well, some hundreds of times.”

(Sherlock) “Then how many are there?”

(Watson) “How many? I don’t know.”

(Sherlock) “Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed. ” (A Scandal in Bohemia)

There are those who argue that we can never escape the bias of our own world view. That anything we see will be bent by what we already believe. This implies we can never be totally rational about anything we see. I think there is some truth in this. I’m well aware that any observations I make will be affected by who I am based on my cultural background, social status, gender, race, economic position and a host of other factors. 

However, I don’t think our fallibility absolves us of having to work much harder to try to see - really see - a situation before we set about forming theories. Sherlock Holmes said it best when he said: 

“Data! data! data!” he cried, impatiently. “I can’t make bricks without clay.” (Adventure of the Copper Beaches)

When observing the world, there are techniques that can be used to document and differentiate observations and associated personal reflections. For example, during a field study you might normally record the more obvious observational information, including: time, physical setting, people, actions, conversations, interactions and conflicts. 

You can supplement this by recording your own feelings, reactions and thoughts. This second layer of information helps surface your own participation in the observation. It is a type self-honesty can help us untangle our selves from our observations. Try it sometime. 

You might find that seeing the world with open eyes will take you to ideas you never anticipated finding. 


Arthur Conan Doyle (1887) Study in Scarlet, Ward Lock & Co.

Arthur Conan Doyle (1891) A Scandal in Bohemia, Strand Magazine.

Arthur Conan Doyle (1892) Adventure of the Copper Beaches, Strand Magazine.

Sherlock Holmes Photo by Christopher Roosen.

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