Wednesday, January 23, 2013

34. Expertise

“I am prepared to bet that you will not guess the form that my exercise has taken.”
“The Adventure of Black Peter”

Sherlock Holmes is, undoubtedly, an expert. But an expert of what?

Writing in the British Journal of Psychology in 2008, Didierjean André and Gobet Fernand explore the concept of expertise in the canon, noting:

Sherlock Holmes presents all mental characteristics described by research into cognitive expertise. He perceives the scenes and objects of his domain of expertise differently to novices. To do this, he uses knowledge that novices do not have. In particular, he appears to have specific episodic knowledge, acquired through past experiences, and also knowledge of a more schematic nature. The latter enables him to very rapidly encode the elements of a problem and to orient him to likely outcomes. However, Sherlock Holmes also presents a number of characteristics that have not or that have rarely been studied in research into cognitive expertise, although they may have been studied in other fields of psychology.

Following the author’s definition, Holmes’s expertise is on full display in “Black Peter,” throughout all facets of its narrative. The story begins when a novice—in this case, the young Inspector Stanley Hopkins, approaches Holmes for advice, knowing that Holmes’s unique perceptions are warranted in a highly unusual murder case. Holmes deftly combines both episodic (i.e., teasingly commenting to Hopkins that “I have investigated many crimes, but I have never yet seen one which was committed by a flying creature” to explain the absence of footprints at the scene) and schematic (addressing each element of the scene—including those overlooked by the young Inspector—in relationship to the crime committed).

It is on the subject of these other aspects of expertise that the authors mention that the questions of Holmes’s exact area of specialty begin to unfold. Questions of intelligence (Holmes is, without argument, highly intelligent) and attention (lest the reader forget that Holmes’s collection of criminal information and ephemera rivals that of the police), while germane to the subject, do not necessarily denote an expert opinion. As André and Fernand conclude:

Sherlock Holmes’ declared will to verbalize what relates to his art also brings about two important points. Firstly, the role of language in expertise. It is possible that providing explanations to Watson contributes to Sherlock Holmes’ expertise by forcing him to develop a verbal expertise… [but] do Sherlock Holmes’ verbalizations reflect all the aspects of his art? Nothing is less sure…However, it is likely that knowledge of an implicit, non-verbalizable kind lies at the basis of cognitive expertise – what is sometimes called ‘intuition’.

Thus, we see Sherlock Holmes as not just a character that takes forensic science to new intellectual levels, though he undoubtedly does, but rather as one who intellectualizes for others, verbalizing cognitions and providing a voice (again, passed through, or as such, elaborated upon, by Watson) to his own intuitions. An expert, then, would be, as Holmes is, a “public” intellectual, reflecting the information, intellect, and experience befitting the expert, but also refracting that expertise through—and for the benefit of—others. 

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