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Celebrating ignorance with Sherlock Holmes

We know that some political and religious leaders are proud of their ignorance of evolution, global warming, etc., but did you know that this tradition goes back to Sherlock Holmes? In A Study in Scarlet, he expresses the opinion that it makes no practical difference whether the sun orbits the earth or vice versa. Yet, in The Musgrave Ritual, it turns out that incorrect theories make incorrect predictions...

Holmes: “I looked up at the sun. It was low in the heavens, and I calculated that in less than an hour it would lie just above the topmost branches of the old oak. One condition mentioned in the Ritual would then be fulfilled. And the shadow of the elm must mean the farther end of the shadow, otherwise the trunk would have been chosen as the guide. I had, then, to find where the far end of the shadow would fall when the sun was just clear of the oak.�

Watson: I imagine both trees must have grown since the Musgrave Ritual was written, but what do you mean when you say that the sun was “just above the branches� of the oak?

Homes: I suppose it must be a mile or so up to clear the mountains, but I could still tell that it was directly over the oak.

Watson: Do you remember me telling you that the earth goes around the sun? You said you would try to forget it, to leave room in your brain for more important facts.

Holmes: And so I have.

Watson: But the orbit is such that the sun is never directly overhead anywhere in England!

Homes: From where I was standing, it looked like it was right over the oak. So then I just had to locate the far end of the shadow from the elm….

Watson: But surely you’ve noticed that where the shadow of a tree falls varies with the day of the year, not just with the hour of the day? This is a direct consequence of the orbital pattern you were so eager to forget.

Holmes: It’s good that I have you to keep track of such minor details. I hadn’t noticed.

Watson: You saw, but you did not observe.


Ah, ignorance and Sherlock.


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