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Sherlock Holmes Can Teach Us a Lot About Expertise

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How do we become more knowledgeable and skilful about something? How is expertise gained? Why are experts and novices different? Answers to these and other questions can be found in Conan Doyle’s novels about Sherlock Holmes, according to research.

Expertise is characteristics, skills, and knowledge distinguishing between experts and novices. We acquire expertise through getting lots of deliberate experience, getting accurate, diagnostic and timely feedback, and reviewing prior experiences (to gain new insights and learn from mistakes). Different types of expertise, such as chess, maths, medicine and natural decision-making (NDM), have been studied. 

A very famous expert is unfortunately fictional. This expert is Sherlock Holmes, the consulting detective, whose hobbies involve playing the violin, taking recreational drugs (cocaine and morphine), and smoking a pipe. Conan Doyle described the way that Sherlock Holmes solved crimes using his expertise in a lot of detail during Holmes’ discussion with Dr Watson.

Sherlock Holmes is definitely an expert in his field, and fits the psychological definition of ‘expert’ extremely well. Sherlock Holmes was very successful in his job, and I think we could learn a lot about how to make good decisions and how to become experts from the decisions he made.

Most studies about expertise look at samples of novices versus experts doing a task in a given domain, but hardly any look at a single expert. To my extreme luck and reading pleasure, I found a study which looks at just one expert, who also happens to be a literary character.  The research found that Conan Doyle identified features of expertise that have been found in recent research and also, features which current research does not account for.

Sherlock Holmes books provide examples of features of expertise such as the fact that Holmes has a large amount of knowledge, which is highly organised and very specialised, that his knowledge is made up of ‘schema’ or ‘chunks’ so it can  be adapted to different situations. Also, when and event differs from expected schema, he experiences expectation failure, which he is able to notice straight away and use to his advantage.

As well as showing examples of what we already know about expertise, Sherlock Holmes also provides new suggestions about how expertise is acquired. 

The books touch on the innateness of expertise (Sherlock has a very smart brother), mentions a new type of reasoning called abductive reasoning (where one starts from observed data and derives mostly likely explanation, making it possible to deduce by implication), the use of metacognitive mechanisms, role of errors, aging and emotions in expertise and the transferability of expertise in different domains.

This study provides a fascinating overview of expertise via the medium of a book quotes about Sherlock Holmes. I also think that the effects of intuition and drugs on expertise should be studied, as Sherlock was both a user of drugs and a highly intuitive man. Sadly, the books do not address these issues. Even so, Sherlock Holmes books provide ample examples of expertise in the domain of crime solving, whilst also being a great read.

While I am not convinced that we should follow Sherlock Holmes exactly, as his drug-taking and reclusive ways will not suit everybody, I think we can learn how to become experts by reading the books and using his methods such as organising our knowledge in clear ways, noticing expectation failure, practice, tailoring knowledge and using abductive reasoning.

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Dr Elizabeth Kaplunov is a researcher who evaluates projects about health technology for disabled and vulnerable people with a focus on gaining insight into processes, usage, feasibility and outcomes analysis.

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