Sherlock Holmes and the Paranormal

Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Although a fictional character, Sherlock Holmes provides us with solid wisdom when it comes to research and investigation.  What advice did the world’s first consulting detective leave us which might prove useful in our investigations?  Let’s consider some of his sage guidance.

I consider this first bit of counsel the most important:

“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.” – Sherlock Holmes, A Scandal in Bohemia

Not following this edict is the greatest problem plaguing paranormal research today.  We see it time after time with constantly predictable results.  A “researcher” assumes a “UFO” event represents contact by space aliens or another assumes unusual activity is “proof” of a ghost.  Just as Holmes warned, as soon as we approach an event with a pre-formed theory, we begin to twist the facts to match our explanation.  Some purposely twist the facts, while others do so without direct intention, yet the result is the same – data is formed to fit the conclusion instead of a conclusion formed to fit the data.

In exploring the unknown, we claim to be seeking the truth.  Despite this, many seem reluctant to accept the truth if it does not match a preconceived notion.  This seems especially the case when “believers” are confronted with evidence which proves an event has nothing to do with aliens or ghosts or Bigfoot or any other paranormal explanation, but instead has a completely natural explanation.  The truth is what it is.  We might not like the truth, but that does not prevent it from being the truth.

The plethora of “orb” photographs which continue to liter the internet prove a perfect example of this.  So many people want to believe in life after death, despite the overwhelming evidence that 99.99% of “orbs” are photographic artifacts cause by things like dust or insects, they decide “orbs” are “spirits” and steadfastly refuse to be swayed by facts.

The solution?  Follow Holmes’s advice: first collect the data then analyze it to form a conclusion.

We find similar advice here:

“We approached the case, you remember, with an absolutely blank mind, which is always an advantage.  We had formed no theories.  We were simply there to observe and to draw inferences from our observations.” – Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Cardboard Box

Again, Holmes emphasizes the importance of approaching an investigation with a blank mind.  We don’t go charging in with the assumption “the butler did it” and then selectively sift through the data to prove our conclusion.  Instead, we gather evidence and follow the facts to wherever they lead.  This might lead us to conclude an event is of paranormal origin or it might not.  We follow the facts.  We don’t make the facts follow us.

“It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize out of a number of facts which are incidental and which vital.  Otherwise your energy and attention must be dissipated instead of being concentrated.” – Sherlock Holmes, The Reigate Puzzle

This is yet another critical bit of advice for investigators.  We must develop the ability to “separate the wheat from the chaff.”  We must determine what is relevant and what is not.  Background research is one way to develop this ability.  The more we know our subject, the more we gain the ability to recognize the important from the unimportant.

We see this “rule” violated anytime a researcher focuses on an unimportant bit of trivia or attempts to connect unrelated events.  As an example, a MUFON journal article several years ago mentioned the fact a British researcher was claiming he received highly classified information on UFOs from members of GCHQ (the British equivalent of the NSA).  The author tells us following these claims this researcher received a visit from British security personnel.  The author then violates Holmes advice by inappropriately connecting the two events, claiming the visit from the security personnel proved the researcher did in fact have leaked classified information on UFOs.  The article’s author failed to consider the fact the researcher was claiming GCHQ personnel were leaking top-secret information.  Such an assertion would of course prompt an investigation to determine if any information was actually being leaked.  It has nothing to do with claims about the content of the information.  Instead it’s a prime example of how some researchers in their zeal for “evidence” will connect unrelated events in an attempt to “prove” their assertions.


“When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” – Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier

This represents the real task of our investigations.  We must eliminate what cannot be in order to reach what is.  This is not an easy process.  Far too often researchers are content to eliminate only some of the impossible.  Yet, before reaching the conclusion an event was the result of the paranormal or unexplained, we must first eliminate other natural explanations as impossible.  To do otherwise means we’ve done nothing more than perhaps arrived at a possible explanation, but we have certainly not arrived at the truth.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

This is where I have a problem with so-called “alien abductions.”  In nearly every case, “proof” of abduction is based on nothing more than the person’s belief he or she was abducted by aliens.  Mere belief does not prove abduction.  I have no doubt that in their minds many of these people are convinced they were abducted by aliens.  However, there are other possible explanations for these experiences.  Any reasonable person must admit alien abduction is rather improbable.  Therefore to show it’s the truth, we must first eliminate the impossible, which means proving other causes are not the explanation.  Until this happens, the “truth” of alien abduction remains pure conjecture.

What happened to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when he failed to follow his character’s advice?  Despite being a highly educated and intelligent person, Doyle allowed himself to be drawn into the “believer” camp.  He so wanted the fantastic to be true, he uncritically accepted it as such.  For example, he became so drawn into spiritualism, even when shown solid evidence of fraudulent activity, he continued to believe.  On another occasion, he famously pronounced as genuine photographs of fairies which were later proven nothing more than cardboard cutouts.

Cottingley Fairies (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In order to conduct valid research and reach truthful conclusions, we must forego the uncritical “belief” of the good Dr. Doyle and instead follow the sage advice of his creation, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

2010 All rights reserved.  This copyrighted material may not be reposted or reproduced in any form without permission.]


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