“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Too Psyched for Sherlock: A Review of Maria Konnikova’s “Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes”—with Some Thoughts on Science Education

            Whenever he gets really drunk, my brother has the peculiar habit of reciting the plot of one or another of his favorite shows or books. His friends and I like to tease him about it—“Watch out, Dan’s drunk, nobody mention The Wire!”—and the quirk can certainly be annoying, especially if you’ve yet to experience the story first-hand. But I have to admit, given how blotto he usually is when he first sets out on one of his grand retellings, his ability to recall intricate plotlines right down to their minutest shifts and turns is extraordinary. One recent night, during a timeout in an epic shellacking of Notre Dame’s football team, he took up the tale of Django Unchained, which incidentally I’d sat next to him watching just the week before. Tuning him out, I let my thoughts shift to a post I’d read on The New Yorker’s cinema blog The Front Row.

            In “The Riddle of Tarantino,” film critic Richard Brody analyzes the director-screenwriter’s latest work in an attempt to tease out the secrets behind the popular appeal of his creations and to derive insights into the inner workings of his mind. The post is agonizingly—though also at points, I must admit, exquisitely—overwritten, almost a parody of the grandiose type of writing one expects to find within the pages of the august weekly. Bemused by the lavish application of psychoanalytic jargon, I finished the essay pitying Brody for, in all his writerly panache, having nothing of real substance to say about the movie or the mind behind it. I wondered if he knows the scientific consensus on Freud is that his influence is less in the line of, say, a Darwin or an Einstein than of an L. Ron Hubbard.
            What Brody and my brother have in common is that they were both moved enough by their cinematic experience to feel an urge to share their enthusiasm, complicated though that enthusiasm may have been. Yet they both ended up doing the story a disservice, succeeding less in celebrating the work than in blunting its impact. Listening to my brother’s rehearsal of the plot with Brody’s essay in mind, I wondered what better field there could be than psychology for affording enthusiasts discussion-worthy insights to help them move beyond simple plot references. How tragic, then, that the only versions of psychology on offer in educational institutions catering to those who would be custodians of art, whether in academia or on the mastheads of magazines like The New Yorker, are those in thrall to Freud’s cultish legacy.
There’s just something irresistibly seductive about the promise of a scientific paradigm that allows us to know more about another person than he knows about himself. In this spirit of privileged knowingness, Brody faults Django for its lack of moral complexity before going on to make a silly accusation. Watching the movie, you know who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and who you want to see prevail in the inevitably epic climax. “And yet,” Brody writes,
the cinematic unconscious shines through in moments where Tarantino just can’t help letting loose his own pleasure in filming pain. In such moments, he never seems to be forcing himself to look or to film, but, rather, forcing himself not to keep going. He’s not troubled by representation but by a visual superego that restrains it. The catharsis he provides in the final conflagration is that of purging the world of miscreants; it’s also a refining fire that blasts away suspicion of any peeping pleasure at misdeeds and fuses aesthetic, moral, and political exultation in a single apotheosis.
The strained stateliness of the prose provides a ready distraction from the stark implausibility of the assessment. Applying Occam’s Razor rather than Freud’s at once insanely elaborate and absurdly reductionist ideology, we might guess that what prompted Tarantino to let the camera linger discomfortingly long on the violent misdeeds of the black hats is that he knew we in the audience would be anticipating that “final conflagration.”  The more outrageous the offense, the more pleasurable the anticipation of comeuppance—but the experimental findings that support this view aren’t covered in film or literary criticism curricula, mired as they are in century-old pseudoscience.
Maria Konnikova
            I’ve been eagerly awaiting the day when scientific psychology supplants psychoanalysis (as well as other equally, if not more, absurd ideologies) in academic and popular literary discussions. Coming across the blog Literally Psyched on Scientific American’s website about a year ago gave me a great sense of hope. The tagline, “Conceived in literature, tested in psychology,” as well as the credibility conferred by the host site, promised that the most fitting approach to exploring the resonance and beauty of stories might be undergoing a long overdue renaissance, liberated at last from the dominion of crackpot theorists. So when the author, Maria Konnikova, a doctoral candidate at Columbia, released her first book, I made a point to have Amazon deliver it as early as possible. Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes does indeed follow the conceived-in-literature-tested-in-psychology formula, taking the principles of sound reasoning expounded by what may be the most recognizable fictional character in history and attempting to show how modern psychology proves their soundness. In what she calls a “Prelude” to her book, Konnikova explains that she’s been a Holmes fan since her father read Conan Doyle’s stories to her and her siblings as children.
     The one demonstration of the detective’s abilities that stuck with Konnikova the most comes when he explains to his companion and chronicler Dr. Watson the difference between seeing and observing, using as an example the number of stairs leading up to their famous flat at 221B Baker Street. Watson, naturally, has no idea how many stairs there are because he isn’t in the habit of observing. Holmes, preternaturally, knows there are seventeen steps. Ever since being made aware of Watson’s—and her own—cognitive limitations through this vivid illustration (which had a similar effect on me when I first read “A Scandal in Bohemia” as a teenager), Konnikova has been trying to find the secret to becoming a Holmesian observer as opposed to a mere Watsonian seer. Already in these earliest pages, we encounter some of the principle shortcomings of the strategy behind the book. Konnikova wastes no time on the question of whether or not a mindset oriented toward things like the number of stairs in your building has any actual advantages—with regard to solving crimes or to anything else—but rather assumes old Sherlock is saying something instructive and profound.
            Mastermind is, for the most part, an entertaining read. Its worst fault in the realm of simple page-by-page enjoyment is that Konnikova often belabors points that upon reflection expose themselves as mere platitudes. The overall theme is the importance of mindfulness—an important message, to be sure, in this age of rampant multitasking. But readers get more endorsement than practical instruction. You can only be exhorted to pay attention to what you’re doing so many times before you stop paying attention to the exhortations. The book’s problems in both the literary and psychological domains, however, are much more serious. I came to the book hoping it would hold some promise for opening the way to more scientific literary discussions by offering at least a glimpse of what they might look like, but while reading I came to realize there’s yet another obstacle to any substantive analysis of stories. Call it the TED effect. For anything to be read today, or for anything to get published for that matter, it has to promise to uplift readers, reveal to them some secret about how to improve their lives, help them celebrate the horizonless expanse of human potential.
Naturally enough, with the cacophony of competing information outlets, we all focus on the ones most likely to offer us something personally useful. Though self-improvement is a worthy endeavor, the overlooked corollary to this trend is that the worthiness intrinsic to enterprises and ideas is overshadowed and diminished. People ask what’s in literature for me, or what can science do for me, instead of considering them valuable in their own right—and instead of thinking, heaven forbid, we may have a duty to literature and science as institutions serving as essential parts of the foundation of civilized society.
            In trying to conceive of a book that would operate as a vehicle for her two passions, psychology and Sherlock Holmes, while at the same time catering to readers’ appetite for life-enhancement strategies and spiritual uplift, Konnikova has produced a work in the grip of a bewildering and self-undermining identity crisis. The organizing conceit of Mastermind is that, just as Sherlock explains to Watson in the second chapter of A Study in Scarlet, the brain is like an attic. For Konnikova, this means the mind is in constant danger of becoming cluttered and disorganized through carelessness and neglect. That this interpretation wasn’t what Conan Doyle had in mind when he put the words into Sherlock’s mouth—and that the meaning he actually had in mind has proven to be completely wrong—doesn’t stop her from making her version of the idea the centerpiece of her argument. “We can,” she writes,
learn to master many aspects of our attic’s structure, throwing out junk that got in by mistake (as Holmes promises to forget Copernicus at the earliest opportunity), prioritizing those things we want to and pushing back those that we don’t, learning how to take the contours of our unique attic into account so that they don’t unduly influence us as they otherwise might. (27)
This all sounds great—a little too great—from a self-improvement perspective, but the attic metaphor is Sherlock’s explanation for why he doesn’t know the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around. He states quite explicitly that he believes the important point of similarity between attics and brains is their limited capacity. “Depend upon it,” he insists, “there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before.” Note here his topic is knowledge, not attention.
            It is possible that a human mind could reach and exceed its storage capacity, but the way we usually avoid this eventuality is that memories that are seldom referenced are forgotten. Learning new facts may of course exhaust our resources of time and attention. But the usual effect of acquiring knowledge is quite the opposite of what Sherlock suggests. In the early 1990’s, a research team led by Patricia Alexander demonstrated that having background knowledge in a subject area actually increased participants’ interest in and recall for details in an unfamiliar text. One of the most widely known replications of this finding was a study showing that chess experts have much better recall for the positions of pieces on a board than novices. However, Sherlock was worried about information outside of his area of expertise. Might he have a point there?
The problem is that Sherlock’s vocation demands a great deal of creativity, and it’s never certain at the outset of a case what type of knowledge may be useful in solving it. In the story “The Lion’s Mane,” he relies on obscure information about a rare species of jellyfish to wrap up the mystery. Konnikova cites this as an example of “The Importance of Curiosity and Play.” She goes on to quote Sherlock’s endorsement for curiosity in The Valley of Fear: “Breadth of view, my dear Mr. Mac, is one of the essentials of our profession. The interplay of ideas and the oblique uses of knowledge are often of extraordinary interest” (151). How does she account for the discrepancy? Could Conan Doyle’s conception of the character have undergone some sort of evolution? Alas, Konnikova isn’t interested in questions like that. “As with most things,” she writes about the earlier reference to the attic theory, “it is safe to assume that Holmes was exaggerating for effect” (150). I’m not sure what other instances she may have in mind—it seems to me that the character seldom exaggerates for effect. In any case, he was certainly not exaggerating his ignorance of Copernican theory in the earlier story.
If Konnikova were simply privileging the science at the expense of the literature, the measure of Mastermind’s success would be in how clearly the psychological theories and findings are laid out. Unfortunately, her attempt to stitch science together with pronouncements from the great detective often leads to confusing tangles of ideas. Following her formula, she prefaces one of the few example exercises from cognitive research provided in the book with a quote from “The Crooked Man.” After outlining the main points of the case, she writes, 
How to make sense of these multiple elements? “Having gathered these facts, Watson,” Holmes tells the doctor, “I smoked several pipes over them, trying to separate those which were crucial from others which were merely incidental.” And that, in one sentence, is the first step toward successful deduction: the separation of those factors that are crucial to your judgment from those that are just incidental, to make sure that only the truly central elements affect your decision. (169)
So far she hasn’t gone beyond the obvious. But she does go on to cite a truly remarkable finding that emerged from research by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the early 1980’s. People who read a description of a man named Bill suggesting he lacks imagination tended to feel it was less likely that Bill was an accountant than that he was an accountant who plays jazz for a hobby—even though the two points of information in that second description make in inherently less likely than the one point of information in the first. The same result came when people were asked whether it was more likely that a woman named Linda was a bank teller or both a bank teller and an active feminist. People mistook the two-item choice as more likely. Now, is this experimental finding an example of how people fail to sift crucial from incidental facts?
Daniel Kahneman
            The findings of this study are now used as evidence of a general cognitive tendency known as the conjunction fallacy. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman explains how more detailed descriptions (referring to Tom instead of Bill) can seem more likely, despite the actual probabilities, than shorter ones. He writes,
The judgments of probability that our respondents offered, both in the Tom W and Linda problems, corresponded precisely to judgments of representativeness (similarity to stereotypes). Representativeness belongs to a cluster of closely related basic assessments that are likely to be generated together. The most representative outcomes combine with the personality description to produce the most coherent stories. The most coherent stories are not necessarily the most probable, but they are plausible, and the notions of coherence, plausibility, and probability are easily confused by the unwary. (159)
So people are confused because the less probable version is actually easier to imagine. But here’s how Konnikova tries to explain the point by weaving it together with Sherlock’s ideas:
Holmes puts it this way: “The difficulty is to detach the framework of fact—of absolute undeniable fact—from the embellishments of theorists and reporters. Then, having established ourselves upon this sound basis, it is our duty to see what inferences may be drawn and what are the special points upon which the whole mystery turns.” In other words, in sorting through the morass of Bill and Linda, we would have done well to set clearly in our minds what were the actual facts, and what were the embellishments or stories in our minds. (173)
But Sherlock is not referring to our minds’ tendency to mistake coherence for probability, the tendency that has us seeing more detailed and hence less probable stories as more likely. How could he have been? Instead, he’s talking about the importance of independently assessing the facts instead of passively accepting the assessments of others. Konnikova is fudging, and in doing so she’s shortchanging the story and obfuscating the science.
            As the subtitle implies, though, Mastermind is about how to think; it is intended as a self-improvement guide. The book should therefore be judged based on the likelihood that readers will come away with a greater ability to recognize and avoid cognitive biases, as well as the ability to sustain the conviction to stay motivated and remain alert. Konnikova emphasizes throughout that becoming a better thinker is a matter of determinedly forming better habits of thought. And she helpfully provides countless illustrative examples from the Holmes canon, though some of these precepts and examples may not be as apt as she’d like. You must have clear goals, she stresses, to help you focus your attention. But the overall purpose of her book provides a great example of a vague and unrealistic end-point. Think better? In what domain? She covers examples from countless areas, from buying cars and phones, to sizing up strangers we meet at a party. Sherlock, of course, is a detective, so he focuses his attention of solving crimes. As Konnikova dutifully points out, in domains other than his specialty, he’s not such a mastermind.
            What Mastermind works best as is a fun introduction to modern psychology. But it has several major shortcomings in that domain, and these same shortcomings diminish the likelihood that reading the book will lead to any lasting changes in thought habits. Concepts are covered too quickly, organized too haphazardly, and no conceptual scaffold is provided to help readers weigh or remember the principles in context. Konnikova’s strategy is to take a passage from Conan Doyle’s stories that seems to bear on noteworthy findings in modern research, discuss that research with sprinkled references back to the stories, and wrap up with a didactic and sententious paragraph or two. Usually, the discussion begins with one of Watson’s errors, moves on to research showing we all tend to make similar errors, and then ends admonishing us not to be like Watson. Following Kahneman’s division of cognition into two systems—one fast and intuitive, the other slower and demanding of effort—Konnikova urges us to get out of our “System Watson” and rely instead on our “System Holmes.” “But how do we do this in practice?” she asks near the end of the book,
How do we go beyond theoretically understanding this need for balance and open-mindedness and applying it practically, in the moment, in situations where we might not have as much time to contemplate our judgments as we do in the leisure of our reading?
The answer she provides: “It all goes back to the very beginning: the habitual mindset that we cultivate, the structure that we try to maintain for our brain attic no matter what” (240). Unfortunately, nowhere in her discussion of built-in biases and the correlates to creativity did she offer any step-by-step instruction on how to acquire new habits. Konnikova is running us around in circles to hide the fact that her book makes an empty promise.
Tellingly, Kahneman, whose work on biases Konnikova cites on several occasions, is much more pessimistic about our prospects for achieving Holmesian thought habits. In the introduction to Thinking, Fast and Slow, he says his goal is merely to provide terms and labels for the regular pitfalls of thinking to facilitate more precise gossiping. He writes,
Why be concerned with gossip? Because it is much easier, as well as far more enjoyable, to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognize our own. Questioning what we believe and want is difficult at the best of times, and especially difficult when we most need to do it, but we can benefit from the informed opinions of others. Many of us spontaneously anticipate how friends and colleagues will evaluate our choices; the quality and content of these anticipated judgments therefore matters. The expectation of intelligent gossip is a powerful motive for serious self-criticism, more powerful than New Year resolutions to improve one’s decision making at work and home. (3)
The worshipful attitude toward Sherlock in Mastermind is designed to pander to our vanity, and so the suggestion that we need to rely on others to help us think is too mature to appear in its pages. The closest Konnikova comes to allowing for the importance of input and criticism from other people is when she suggests that Watson is an indispensable facilitator of Sherlock’s process because he “serves as a constant reminder of what errors are possible” (195), and because in walking him through his reasoning Sherlock is forced to be more mindful. “It may be that you are not yourself luminous,” Konnikova quotes from The Hound of the Baskervilles, “but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt” (196).
            That quote shows one of the limits of Sherlock’s mindfulness that Konnikova never bothers to address. At times throughout Mastermind, it’s easy to forget that we probably wouldn’t want to live the way Sherlock is described as living. Want to be a great detective? Abandon your spouse and your kids, move into a cheap flat, work full-time reviewing case histories of past crimes, inject some cocaine, shoot holes in the wall of your flat where you’ve drawn a smiley face, smoke a pipe until the air is unbreathable, and treat everyone, including your best (only?) friend with casual contempt. Conan Doyle made sure his character casts a shadow. The ideal character Konnikova holds up, with all his determined mindfulness, often bears more resemblance to Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu. This isn’t to say that Sherlock isn’t morally complex—readers love him because he’s so clearly a good guy, as selfish and eccentric as he may be. Konnikova cites an instance in which he holds off on letting the police know who committed a crime. She quotes:
Once that warrant was made out, nothing on earth would save him. Once or twice in my career I feel that I have done more real harm by my discovery of the criminal than ever he had done by his crime. I have learned caution now, and I had rather play tricks with the law of England than with my own conscience. Let us know more before we act.
But Konnikova isn’t interested in morality, complex or otherwise, no matter how central moral intuitions are to our enjoyment of fiction. The lesson she draws from this passage shows her at her most sententious and platitudinous:
You don’t mindlessly follow the same preplanned set of actions that you had determined early on. Circumstances change, and with them so does the approach. You have to think before you leap to act, or judge someone, as the case may be. Everyone makes mistakes, but some may not be mistakes as such, when taken in the context of the time and the situation. (243)
Hard to disagree, isn’t it?
            To be fair, Konnikova does mention some of Sherlock’s peccadilloes in passing. And she includes a penultimate chapter titled “We’re Only Human,” in which she tells the story of how Conan Doyle was duped by a couple of young girls into believing they had photographed some real fairies. She doesn’t, however, take the opportunity afforded by this episode in the author’s life to explore the relationship between the man and his creation. She effectively says he got tricked because he didn’t do what he knew how to do, it can happen to any of us, so be careful you don’t let it happen to you. Aren’t you glad that’s cleared up? She goes on to end the chapter with an incongruous lesson about how you should think like a hunter. Maybe we should, but how exactly, and when, and at what expense, we’re never told.
            Konnikova clearly has a great deal of genuine enthusiasm for both literature and science, and despite my disappointment with her first book I plan to keep following her blog. I’m even looking forward to her next book—confident she’ll learn from the negative reviews she’s bound to get on this one. The tragic blunder she made in eschewing nuanced examinations of how stories work, how people relate to characters, or how authors create them for a shallow and one-dimensional attempt at suggesting a 100 year-old fictional character somehow divined groundbreaking research findings from the end of the Twentieth and beginning of the Twenty-First Centuries calls to mind an exchange you can watch on YouTube between Neil Degrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins. Tyson, after hearing Dawkins speak in the way he’s known to, tries to explain why many scientists feel he’s not making the most of his opportunities to reach out to the public.
You’re professor of the public understanding of science, not the professor of delivering truth to the public. And these are two different exercises. One of them is putting the truth out there and they either buy your book or they don’t. That’s not being an educator; that’s just putting it out there. Being an educator is not only getting the truth right; there’s got to be an act of persuasion in there as well. Persuasion isn’t “Here’s the facts—you’re either an idiot or you’re not.” It’s “Here are the facts—and here is a sensitivity to your state of mind.” And it’s the facts and the sensitivity when convolved together that creates impact. And I worry that your methods, and how articulately barbed you can be, ends up being simply ineffective when you have much more power of influence than is currently reflected in your output.
Dawkins begins his response with an anecdote that shows that he’s not the worst offender when it comes to simple and direct presentations of the facts.
A former and highly successful editor of New Scientist Magazine, who actually built up New Scientist to great new heights, was asked “What is your philosophy at New Scientist?” And he said, “Our philosophy at New Scientist is this: science is interesting, and if you don’t agree you can fuck off.”
I know the issue is a complicated one, but I can’t help thinking Tyson-style persuasion too often has the opposite of its intended impact, conveying as it does the implicit message that science has to somehow be sold to the masses, that it isn’t intrinsically interesting. At any rate, I wish that Konnikova hadn’t dressed up her book with false promises and what she thought would be cool cross-references. Sherlock Holmes is interesting. Psychology is interesting. If you don’t agree, you can fuck off.