Not Quite, Sherlock

Holmes and Watson

Watson and Holmes

We teach students to be critical—to look beyond the obvious.

Question assumptions.

Just like Sherlock Holmes, whose exploits are finding new audiences in 2013, we should look beyond the surface.

A new BBC drama with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman draws about 8 million viewers per episode—that’s about the whole population of New York City.

The modern Holmes—updated as a smart-phone geek—solves mysteries with his pal John Watson by employing laptops and powerful mind techniques that slice through detritus.

Two new books tackle such techniques and this week The New York Times wrote about them.

Problem is, the reviews are sophomoric and uncritical.

The reviewer says that one book—Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes—reports we improve our brains.

Brain scans of “older adults who learn to juggle or to speak a new language show an increase in gray matter in the relevant areas of the brain.”

The writer goes on to say, “with application and practice even the elderly can reverse signs of cognitive decline that has already occurred.”

But none of this is supported by evidence.

We are remarkably uncritical when we hear that we can improve our brain power by doing crossword puzzles or slurping Ginseng tea.

And “increasing gray matter” in the brain is a wildly non-specific statement with no scientific evidence to bolster it.

No neuroscientist in her right mind would claim that someone can “reverse” cognitive decline.

That’s like the claims made by cosmetic firms that a rare cream can reverse aging.

Our best defense is to read such reviews and consider such claims critically and thoughtfully.

As for Sherlock, the BBC program is a blast.

But it’s entertainment, not science.

Drawing by Sidney Edward Paget, a turn-of-the century illustrator. See


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in cinema, neuroscience, science, science communication and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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