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October 2nd, 2018 (Permalink)

New Book: The Sherlock Effect

There is no question that Conan Doyle was a great writer of fiction. Indeed, he was so good that he made the methods of Sherlock Holmes plausible not only to a general readership but also to a wide variety of forensic doctors, academicians, and scientists. People seem to have forgotten that Sherlock Holmes is make-believe. It is both sad and terrifying to note that professionals from the Victorian Era to the present day apply fictional methods to true-life happenings.1

I'm on record in a previous "New Book" entry as skeptical about Sherlock Holmes being treated as a model of logical reasoning2. I mentioned that I like the stories, and I've read every one of the originals written by Doyle more than once3. However, anyone trying to imitate Holmes would soon find themselves frequently mistaken. Holmes is never wrong only because the stories don't take place in the real world, but in a fantasy world created and controlled by Doyle.

This brings me to the current New Book by Thomas W. Young, a forensic physician, subtitled: "How Forensic Doctors and Investigators Disastrously Reason Like the Great Detective". Clearly, this new book differs from the previous one, Mastermind, in being critical of the effect of Holmes' example.

I'm also skeptical of the notion that forensic scientists have been so influenced by a fictional character4. However, assuming that Holmes has indeed had such an influence, I'm less skeptical that it would be at least partly negative, though "disastrous" is a strong word.

In a review of the book in Psychology Today, Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychologist, writes:

Young begins with Holmes’ explanation to Watson of “reasoning backwards.” It works like this: Holmes learns about or observes a result…and then uses intuition to describe the steps required for the incident to have occurred. “The reader is tricked into thinking that backwards reasoning is brilliant,” says Young, but it doesn’t actually work. Here's why: “For any result, any set of clues, there may be numerous possible ‘trains of events’ that could explain the result.” … So, any given “result” might have numerous possible routes, and one cannot be certain with intuition alone which one to pick.5

Intuition alone doesn't work because it's only part of the first half of the scientific method: forming an hypothesis to explain a set of evidence. There's nothing wrong with using intuition or imagination to form hypotheses; in fact, it's an essential step. What's missing is the next step in which the hypothesis, or intuition, is tested. In Doyle's fictional world, Holmes' intuitions always turn out to be correct; but in the real world, it's often necessary to go through many hypotheses before hitting upon the correct explanation.

Hopefully, this book not only critiques Holmes' methods, as portrayed in Doyle's stories, but also provides better methods. As a logician and fan of Doyle's Holmes stories, I'm looking forward to reading it.


Notes:

  1. Thomas W. Young, The Sherlock Effect: How Forensic Doctors and Investigators Disastrously Reason Like the Great Detective (2018), Chapter 2: "Sherlock and His Successors".
  2. See: New Book: Mastermind, 2/14/2013. I never reviewed this book, though I have read it. I was not favorably impressed.
  3. There are also so many Holmes pastiches of varying quality that I've only read a small fraction of them. However, one that I can recommend for those who like Holmes, and are also interested in logic and probability theory, is Colin Bruce's Conned Again, Watson: Cautionary Tales Of Logic, Math, And Probability (2008).
  4. Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychologist who reviewed the book for Psychology Today, is also skeptical of this so-called "Sherlock Effect". See the next note.
  5. Katherine Ramsland, "Sherlock's Curse", Psychology Today, 5/30/2018. Young's response is here: "A CRC Press author reviews and critiques The Sherlock Effect in Psychology Today", CRC Press, 5/31/2018.

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September 26th, 2018 (Permalink)

A Meeting of the Logicians' Club

The Logicians' Club1 is an organization for perfect logicians who assume nothing and never make a mistake. Moreover, when asked a question, perfect logicians answer with the exact truth and never volunteer information. As you might expect, not many people are eligible for membership. In fact, the current membership of the club consists of three logicians, appropriately known only as A, B, and C2.

This month, the club decided to hold its monthly meeting at a local tavern. When the three logicians had seated themselves at a table, a waiter approached them.

"Would anyone like a beer?" the waiter asked.

"Yes", said A.

"Yes", said B.

"Yes", said C.

The waiter left the table and returned a few minutes later carrying a tray with three glasses of beer on it. He set a glass of beer on the table in front of each logician. A raised the glass of beer and took a sip.

"I don't want this", said B, indicating the glass of beer.

"I don't want this", said C, pushing the glass away.

Why did B and C refuse their glasses of beer?

Answer


Notes:

  1. For an earlier visit to the club, see here: A Puzzle at the Logicians' Club, 1/31/2016.
  2. These are not their real names.

September 25th, 2018 (Permalink)

Meet the Press

In an interview with Omarosa Manigault Newman, Chuck Todd, current host of NBC's venerable Meet the Press, said the following:

… [Trump] has said a lot of racial things. He said a lot of racial things during the campaign, calling Mexicans rapists, attacking a federal judge because he was hispanic, you even talk about his obsession with the "Central Park Five" mythology there. Retweeting false crime statistics. …1

What is a "racial thing"? Did Barack Obama say a lot of "racial things"? I guess that Todd didn't want to come right out and accuse the president of saying a racist thing, so he substituted the word "racial" for "racist". The effect of that, however, is to make the accusation into an innuendo. If Trump has actually said racist things, then Todd ought to say so outright; if not, then Todd should refrain from insinuating that he did.

In any case, how is "calling Mexicans rapists" a "racial thing"? Mexican is not a race, but a nationality. Similarly, "hispanic" is not a race but an ethnicity. So, how are those two things "racial"?

It's impossible to evaluate Todd's claim that Trump's supposed "obsession with the 'Central Park Five' mythology" is a racial thing, at least based on what little he says here. Similarly, "[r]etweeting false crime statistics" is certainly a bad thing, and it might even be a "racial thing" depending on the statistics in question, but it's impossible to know without some detail about the statistics.

It's difficult even to make sense out of most of what Todd said, let alone to see what is "racial" about it, but one part of it that it is possible to evaluate is his reference to Trump "calling Mexicans rapists". Todd is alluding to the following passage from Trump's announcement of his candidacy for the presidency:

When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they’re killing us economically. … When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.2

Trump's remarks are not very coherent, but they're not any less so than Todd's quoted above. No doubt his remarks are impolite and impolitic; so what else is new? However, it's clear from context that he's not saying that all Mexicans are rapists, or that Mexicans are generally rapists, or even that illegal Mexican immigrants are generally rapists. Instead, he's listing a series of "problems" that such immigrants bring with them, including drugs and crime. Moreover, the last sentence makes it clear that he's not condemning all immigrants from Mexico as bad people.

Over two years ago, Salon, of all places, in reference to this contextomy wrote: "The media needs to stop telling this lie about Donald Trump.3" Politifact, not exactly known as a far-right fact-checker, debunked it4.

I won't go as far as Salon and call Chuck Todd a liar; perhaps he genuinely didn't know what he was talking about. But, then, what is he doing at the helm of Meet the Press?


Notes:

  1. "Meet the Press - August 12, 2018", NBC News, 8/12/2018
  2. Time Staff, "Here's Donald Trump's Presidential Announcement Speech", Time, 12/21/2015
  3. Alberto A. Martinez, "The media needs to stop telling this lie about Donald Trump. I’m a Sanders supporter―and value honesty", Salon, 12/21/2015
  4. Warren Fiske, "Tim Kaine falsely says Trump said 'all Mexicans are rapists'", Politifact, 8/8/2016

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