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Chapter 5


When looking for things hidden by following clues it is useful not just to know what we should do and why, but also what we should not do and why not. In following clues there are both Do's and Don'ts. In the last chapter we have looked at some of the Do's. In this chapter we look at some of the Don'ts.

Don't jump to conclusion

'You suspect some one?'

'I suspect myself.'


'Of coming to conclusions too rapidly.'

—— The Naval Treaty

Following clues is not a simple matter (as we have seen in Part I), and mistakes frequently occur. Of these jumping to conclusion is perhaps the most well-known. We see a person holding a smoking gun, standing in front of a dead body. Immediately we conclude this person is the killer. Whether we turn out to be right in our conclusion or not we are still jumping to conclusion. Certainly the smoking gun is a clue but it is one with more than one explanation: the person holding the gun could have been the killer, but it is also possible that the killer has left and the person holding the gun picked it up from the floor. To find out who the killer is we have to find out what happened, and for that we need many clues. The event causing death has a structure. Structures have characteristics, and as such they leave behind clues. To re-construct a structure and not to confuse it neighbouring structures we need many clues, not just one, or even a few.

When we jump to conclusion we arrive at a conclusion using too few clues, often just one. Even if the conclusion we jump to is right it would not have been justified by the steps we have taken. Put another way, even if the conclusion is right we would not have known when left to ourselves. For this is all that we have done when we jump to conclusion: we have looked at one or two clues and then latched on to the first possible explanation that comes to mind. Now we may have a good feeling about this conclusion, but this is not how we evaluate results when following clues. In following clues we do not evaluate results by consulting our feelings, but by seeing whether they lead to more and more new clues.

When we jump to conclusion we have by that very act terminated our attempt at developing new clues. And this those who jump to conclusion often say: 'I know already. I don't need to look any more.' By not looking; by not continuing with the search; by not developing new clues from old; they are not in a position to determine whether the hypothesis they put forward (which they regard as the conclusion) is true or not.

Don't take huge leaps

To uncover hidden structures by re-constructing them we need many clues, with each clue giving us a little bit of information about this structure we want to re-construct. Now since the steps we take in this re-construction process are guided by clues each step we take in this process, of necessity, is a small one. This we call the Small Steps Principle (see again Part I). In following clues we have to observe this principle. If we do not; if we start making huge leaps; we will not find the things we are looking for. When we take these huge leaps we still could be thinking of ourselves as following clues, but since we are not responding to clues the way we should respond, whatever results we arrive at after these huge leaps are unjustified.

As I have mentioned in Part I, even experienced investigators will sometime make this mistake (of taking huge leaps). In recent years we find this mistake (of taking huge leaps) occurring often with people who espouse conspiracy theories. These people pride themselves on what they have been able to discover by following clues. Of course they will also warn you that whatever they, or anybody else, discover by following clues cannot be absolutely certain. However, the mistake these people make is not that they regard their theories as certain, but that their very elaborate theories are based on very few clues. They start out with one or two. These they say lead them to a certain theory, which they are reluctant to accept. But they discover more clues, which fill out some of the details of their theory. Still unwilling to accept their own theory they try to see what new clues they can develop; and as luck would have it, they say, they do manage to find one or two more, then one or two more, and so on. But, and this is the interesting thing to watch, with each generation of new clues they say they have found the amount of detail they are able to glean from it escalates, so that eventually, in rather short order, they end up with a highly elaborate theory. These conspiracy theorists may not have started out with huge leaps, but it has not taken them long to start performing colossal ones. However, by that time unfortunately the less suspecting will have been captivated and entranced by the story they have been weaving.

Don't repeat the Norbury

The word 'Norbury' comes from one of Sherlock Holmes's stories, The Yellow Face. On this occasion Sherlock Holmes was approached by a client who related to him a number of strange happenings. This client had been married a number of years. The relation between husband and wife had been close to ideal. Lately, however, the wife had been acting in a rather strange manner. For example, and these are just some examples, she would ask the husband for a large sum of money but would not tell him what the money was for. One night, without waking her husband she disappeared to the house next door, a house newly rented out. When confronted by the husband she would not divulge what happened. When the husband went over to investigate, the occupants left the house in a hurry, as though they purposely wanted to avoid him. Now these were some of the incidences; there were others besides, all puzzling.

Sherlock Holmes found the account his client gave him intriguing, and after the client had left he had a discussion with Watson. What does Sherlock Holmes think of this case? He is confident that blackmail is involved, and he proceeds to explain to Watson how his theory can explain all the many things he has been told.

Was blackmail really involved? Not at all! As they found out soon enough, what happened was completely different from what Sherlock Holmes had suspected. And this before Sherlock Holmes had the chance to offer a second theory.

The events in this story happened in a village called Norbury, and the story itself ends with the following lines:

Not another word did he [Sherlock Holmes] say of the case until late that night, when he was turning away, with his lighted candle, for his bedroom.

Watson,” said he, “if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little over-confident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.”

Sherlock Holmes had no doubts that he had made a big mistake at Norbury. What was his mistake?

The mistake Sherlock Holmes makes at Norbury is quite common, but it is not jumping to conclusion, since Sherlock Holmes has not just one or two clues, but quite a number, and he expects to find more. Nor can anyone accuse Sherlock Holmes of taking huge leaps, since his explanation of the many things that have happened from the standpoint of his blackmail theory is by no means forced; rather, one would describe it as natural. Now if the mistake is not jumping to conclusion nor taking huge leaps, what could it be?

In the story Watson had suspected right from the beginning that there was something wrong with the confidence Sherlock Holmes placed on his theory. What did Sherlock Holmes say in reply?

The reply is the common one we offer when we make the same mistake. In defence of his theory against Watson's objection Sherlock Holmes says it 'covers all the facts'.

Now this is the mistake: We often think, mistakenly, that an investigation is nothing more than finding a theory that covers all the facts. Sherlock Holmes was given quite a number of facts, and his blackmail theory explains them all. Isn't this sufficient? Does this not mean that his theory is right?

Not at all, as the events at Norbury show.

Following clues—is that not the same as explaining facts? It is a fact that the wife of the client wants a large sum of money but would not explain what the money is for. If you can figure this out you will have explained this fact. Now Sherlock Holmes's client related to him many other facts, but if you can explain what they all mean, will you not have solved the mystery?

Now the answer to this question is, no, you will not. In following clues it may seem that all that we are doing is explaining facts; in reality, it is not. In following clues we do not collect together just any body of facts and then find a theory to explain them. When following clues we are only interested in those facts that are relevant.

How do we determine what facts are relevant?

We make use of hypotheses offered in response to clues (as we have explained in Part I). Now these hypotheses could be wrong; and they will be if we have regarded as clues facts that are irrelevant. To tell if our hypotheses are wrong we should see if they lead to new clues. Did Sherlock Holmes wait to see if his blackmail theory led to new clues? He did not. He took for granted that the facts as related to him by his client were all relevant and he explained all these facts by his blackmail theory. Just because his blackmail theory explained all the facts he came to the (wrong) conclusion that it must be right. He did not wait to see whether his blackmail theory would lead to new clues. Was he right in regarding all the facts as relevant as they were given to him by his client? He would not have been able to tell if he did not develop new clues. Whether the facts on which he was basing his investigation were relevant should have been an important question to Sherlock Holmes, but he failed to ask this question on this occasion.

It is not easy to determine whether a fact is relevant to a particular investigation. In this kind of determination we often make mistakes. To find out whether we have, we need new clues and new clues are not always easy to develop. It is a complicated business following clues. It is never as simple as collecting a body of facts and finding a theory to explain them. In this story that took place at Norbury Sherlock Holmes makes the mistake of thinking that an investigation is nothing more than finding a theory to explain a body of facts. It is a mistake that he does not wish to repeat again. Simply mention Norbury and he will know what you mean.

Don't make wild guesses except …

No, no: I never guess. It is a shocking habit, ——destructive to the logical faculty.

—— The Sign of the Four

Children sometimes have no idea what a clue is. Show them a cryptogram and ask them what S stands for and they may say anything that comes to mind. School? Ice cream? Sunday? In these cases we say they are just making wild guesses; they are not following clues.

It seems superfluous to remind ourselves that in the theseological process we should not make wild guesses, and it would have been superfluous if there were not an exception. In the theseological process we should not make wild guesses except when we run out of clues and are desperate. The reason we should not make wild guesses is that they have next to no chance of being right. But next to no chance does not mean absolutely no chance. In an investigation when we run out of clues, or run out of ideas as to what the clues might mean, we could as a last measure make wild guesses. Once in a blue moon one of them could turn out to be right. If it should happen to us our investigation is salvaged. But we should not expect this kind of luck to repeat itself too often. Even one lucky wild guess is rare. Two lucky wild guesses in a row is much rarer.

Don't refuse luck

Luck is known to play a role in investigations sometimes. Sometimes by luck a clue falls into our laps. Sometimes by luck we hit upon the right answer to a clue after a few wild guesses. Of course luck does not occur too often, but when it does there is no reason why we should refuse it. In an investigation the important thing is that we should be able to push forward, that is, that we should be able to develop more and more new clues. Usually we have to do this through our own effort, but if occasionally luck should lend us a hand no harm is done, except perhaps to our pride. But since following clues is usually difficult an occasional slight damage to our pride is a small price to pay.

Some will argue that luck never plays a role in any successful investigation. They will say that what appears to be luck in these cases in fact results from our own effort, even though we may not be conscious of it. Now they could be right but we can leave this question to be settled by future investigations. I hope this will be how it will be settled, that is, by investigations, not by verbal argument. In the meantime we can continue to benefit whenever we can from what we ordinarily call luck.

Don't underestimate small beginnings

In the theseological process when thing go our way there are feedback loops. These are positive feedback loops: clues lead to more clues; success leads to even more success. For this reason, when we are following clues we should not look down on small beginnings. Do we need even a simple truth to begin? No; a simple suspicion, or perhaps some simple suspicions, could do, even ones that only approximate to the truth. So long as these approximations are close enough to the truth to initiate the process we could in time, because of the feedback loops (positive), find out more and more and become more and more certain of what we have found out.

Don't play the perfectionist

In deductive reasoning we have to take tremendous care. If we want the conclusion to be true all the premises must be true; there cannot be the slightest bit of falsehood in any of them. And of course, however many step we take in the reasoning, every one of them must be correct.

Deductive reasoning drives us to be perfectionists. For there is no middle ground: either a premise is true or it is false; either a step is correct or it is not. And if we want the conclusion to be true all the premises will have to be true and all the steps correct; there is no room for error anywhere.

Now some people take the same attitude towards the theseological process. Before they try to figure out what a clue means they want to make sure that it is a clue. After they have advanced a hypothesis they want to know right away whether it is true, before they take the next step. It is important to them that their hypotheses be true; they do not accept approximations. An approximation departs from the truth. Whatever departs from the truth is false. But taking this kind of attitude to the theseological process is a mistake. We cannot play the perfectionist when following clues. We cannot act as though the theseological process is nothing more than deductive reasoning with a different face. If we do we will be totally immobilised. When we follow clues we are working in the dark: the things we want to know are hidden. In such a situation, unavoidably, vagueness and uncertainty abound. They can be reduced as we meet with success but they can never be totally eliminated. If we want absolute clarity and absolute certainty right from the start we cannot take the first step. And of course we will make mistakes. In the theseological process there will be much occasion for trial and error. But trial and error means making mistakes first and correcting them later on. Since correction can come (if it comes at all) many steps later this means in the meantime we will be living with the mistake without knowing it. And when we correct a mistake in the theseological process it does not always mean replacing the mistake with the truth; sometimes it will mean nothing more than replacing it with a better approximation.

The theseological process is not deductive reasoning with a different face. As we have pointed out in the introduction to this paper theseology is not a branch of logic. To be effective in theseological process we have to adopt the kind of attitude appropriate to it. When following clues we cannot play the perfectionist.

Don't make the one-weak-link mistake

The one-weak-link mistake is a mistake that we make when evaluating results obtained by following clues. It is a specific instance of playing the perfectionist and comes from the illegitimate importation of a feature of deductive reasoning into the theseological process. Deductive reasoning is often compared to a chain. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. A chain of deductive reasoning therefore can be destroyed by just one weak link. A single weak link will do; there is no need for a second. Now we sometimes think (mistakenly) that this applies to the theseological process too: one weak link anywhere in this process and all the results obtained will be destroyed. For example, suppose a detective claims that she has solved a murder. The person responsible, she says, is the master of the house. We examine how she comes to this conclusion and in the process discover that in the investigation she carried out she made use of information given to her by a well-known liar. It was this liar who told her that the master of the house did it. Once we have made this important discovery we stop paying attention to what else she has done in her investigation. One weak link will do; there is no need for a second. This detective, we say to ourselves, has made a serious mistake. How could she rely on such an untrustworthy person in such an important investigation? So, just on this one weak link we reject the result of her investigation. She, we say, has not established that the master of the house committed the murder. Her investigation was flawed. We have found the one weak link. Now if we do adopt such a position we will have committed the one-weak-link mistake. One weak link will destroy a chain of deductive reasoning but one single mistake will not necessarily destroy the results of an investigation.

Why? Why are investigation like this? Isn't there a price to be paid whenever we make a mistake?

To answer this question, let us stay with our example. Suppose the liar actually lied. She did not know who committed the murder. Her story that the master of the house was responsible was completely made up. It was also vague and sketchy, as stories of this kind often are. But working from this false story, as luck would have it and in investigations there is a place for luck, the detective was able to find new clue after new clue, all pointing to the master of the house! Now when this is the case, that the detective had listened to a habitual liar would not have invalidated her findings. Indeed, she might have developed so many new clues after listening to her informant that eventually she found out that this well-known liar was practising her well-known art on her!

In deductive reasoning we always pay for our mistakes. In the theseological process, to paraphrase Francis Bacon, truth can come out of error!1 Different kinds of activity have different characteristics. There is no reason why everything has to be like deductive reasoning.

Don't complain that you are not God

God knows everything, and does so without effort. In our case we hardly know anything, if we know anything at all.

Often we wonder how we could ever know anything. Many have said, nay even argued, that we cannot know even a single thing.

We often wish that we are like God, at least where knowledge is concerned. But of course we are not.

Yet we complain. Knowledge is important to us. The desire for knowledge cannot be given up.

But there is no use in complaining. Complaining that we are not God will not turn us into God. Instead of complaining we could put our shoulder to the grindstone and try to see what we can discover by following clues. We will never discover everything. Indeed, we may discover very little, however long we keep at it. But it is still better than complaining.

Don't play the dogmatist

The dogmatist claims that there are some things she knows absolutely for certain, some things she knows so well that about them there possibly cannot be any mistakes. In following clues we should never play the dogmatist. In following clue we can never be absolutely certain of our results, however many new clues they have led to. Given any such result there is always the possibility that it will be shown to be false later on, even though the chance that this will happen diminishes the more new clues it leads to.

(Don't complain that there is no confession)

(Don't always stay within the box)

The Norbury

No one would solve a crime by first gathering a random body of facts, and, after this has been done, looking for a theory that would 'explain' this body. No one would do this because it simply would not make sense. How would a random body of facts be relevant to the crime? What point is there in having a theory that 'explains' a random body of facts? In an investigation we cannot collect just any body of facts. In an investigation whether a fact is relevant is an important question, the reason why we have to follow the theseological method. In following clues and developing new clues from old we develop feedback loops (see last chapter). It is these feedback loops which enable us to determine whether a fact is relevant.

Does any one ever conduct an investigation by collecting a random body of facts and then finding a theory to explain them? Surprisingly, or not so surprisingly, we do this very often. Of course we do not think of ourselves as collecting a random body of facts; rather, we simply assume that the facts we are furnished with are all relevant. So we take the facts as they come, look for a theory to explain them, and when one is found, think we have brought the investigation to a successful close. But this is a mistake. This is not how we should conduct investigations. I shall call this mistake the Norbury (the reason for this name will be apparent shortly).

The Norbury is a mistake in more ways than one. Firstly, it is a mistake in that it takes for granted that relevance is easy to determine: whatever appears to be relevant, is relevant. Secondly, it is a mistake in that it takes for granted that an investigation is simple——that it is nothing more than finding a theory to explain a body of facts. Neither of these assumptions is true. In actual fact relevance is difficult to determine. Often we take a fact to be relevant and then later in the investigation discover that we have made a mistake. Determining relevance requires feedback loops: relevant facts (evidence) help us develop the correct theory; correct theory leads us to more relevant facts. What happens when we make serious mistakes in this process, as we often do? The same thing that happens whenever we make any kind of serious mistakes in an investigation: we hit the brick wall.

And it is not true that an investigation is simple. In fact, it is anything but. An investigation is not just a matter of finding a theory to explain a body of facts. In an investigation properly carried out we follow clues and develop new clues from old; that is, we follow the theseological method. In the process we have to make assumptions, form hypotheses, correct mistakes, apply the hypotheses to the evidence, correct mistakes again, find more evidence, find out if this evidence is relevant, correct mistakes yet again, and so on. To say that an investigation is just a matter of finding a theory to explain a body of facts is a caricature, in the same way that it is a caricature to say that a motor-car is nothing but a box with four wheels. It is true that a motor car has a box and four wheels, but a motor-car is not just a box with four wheels; it is much more. It is true that after an investigation has been successfully concluded some facts previously puzzling are now explained, but an investigation is much more than collecting facts and then finding a theory to explain them.

In the real world some processes by their very nature are difficult. We cannot make them simpler through wishful thinking. Building a motor-car is difficult. We cannot simplify this process by just making a box and attaching four wheels to it. It is true that after a successful investigation some facts originally puzzling will be explained, but this does not mean that an investigation is nothing more than collecting facts and explaining them. If we just collect facts we are likely to include in the collection both facts that are relevant and facts that are not. In addition we are likely to miss out a lot of the former. If we then device a theory to 'explain' these facts, the theory fabricated is not likely to have any resemblance to the truth.

The Norbury is a mistake easy to make. It camouflages itself as a shortcut: it tells us to make four wheels and a box instead of building the whole motor-car. And who would not like to take a shortcut if one is available? Unfortunately in this case the shortcut is not genuine. It is in fact a dead end.

The Norbury is so common, so easy to make that even Sherlock Holmes fell prey to it. In The Yellow Face after his interview with his client Sherlock Holmes confides to Watson that he thinks blackmail will explain everything that he has been told.

'Yes. There's blackmail in it, or I am much mistaken.'

'And who is the blackmailer?'

'Well, it must be the creature who lives in the only comfortable room in the place and has her photograph above his fire place. Upon my word, Watson, there is something very attractive about that livid face at the window, and I would not have missed the case for worlds.'

'You have a theory?'

'Yes, a provisional one. But I shall be surprised if it does not turn out to be correct. [From this point on Sherlock Holmes gives a long, long explanation as to how his theory fits in with the facts; then he asks Watson, w]hat do you think of my theory?'

'It is all surmise.'

'But at least it covers all the facts….'

—— The Yellow Face

Against Watson's objection that his theory is 'all surmise', Sherlock Holmes's only defence is that it covers all the facts. If he had been more careful he would have recognised, as he later did, that his defence was completely beside the point, and certainly did not justify the confidence he placed on his theory. There were more facts than he was told by his client at the interview. Some of what he was told was not relevant. As he found out soon afterwards his theory that blackmail was involved was far from the truth. He had made a mistake, as he later acknowledged (see below).

The Yellow Face took place in Norbury. After Sherlock Holmes found out how wrong his theory was, he had this request to make of Watson:

Watson,… if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little overconfident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper 'Norbury' in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.

—— The Yellow Face

Here then is my reason for calling this mistake——of thinking that an investigation is nothing more than a matter of collecting facts and finding a theory to explain them——the Norbury. Sherlock Holmes made this mistake in The Yellow Face, a case that happened in Norbury.

The Norbury is a common mistake. Even experienced investigators will sometimes lapse into thinking that an investigation is nothing more than collecting facts and finding a theory to explain them. In actual investigations we often forget about following clues and developing new clues from old; instead, like Sherlock Holmes in The Yellow Face, we simply take the facts as given, find a theory to explain them, and regard the theory as right solely because it covers all the facts.

Fortunately for Sherlock Holmes his Norbury was short-lived; it seemed to have been just an isolated case, an aberration. Sherlock Holmes knows how investigations should be carried out; his Norbury was due to overconfidence and inattention, as he himself noticed. We have no record that he made the same mistake again.2

For a long time astronomers were enveloped by a Norbury. In the Norbury the sole concern is that theory should 'cover all the facts'; the Norbury does not draw attention to the need for clues, old or new. For a long time astronomers used complicated mathematical creations, called epicycles, to account for the positions of the planets, that is, to make sure that their theory——that the planets move in circles around the earth——agreed with the facts. They did not care if they had to use one set of epicycles for each of the planets; they did not care if they had to add more and more epicycles to each set as time went by; they did not care if their mathematical creations were getting more and more complicated; all that they cared was that their mathematical calculations should agree with observations. This practice was called saving the phenomena. There was no progress in theoretical astronomy until this practice was abandoned and astronomers——such as Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton——started looking for clues.3

The Spider

When we jump to conclusion, we go from one or a few clues directly to the conclusion. In the example above, the conclusion is that the person seen running away is guilty. In voicing this conclusion we have said nothing about the events that led up to the crime, what actually occurred, what the motive was, and so on. All these details are lacking. They are lacking because we have developed no new clues. We need new clues to provide details. When we have no new clues we cannot find out what the details are.

But often we do not let the absence of new clues deter us from providing details. We simply spin them out of our own head as a spider spins its web from its own entrails. When we do this, the details we provide, of course, are not likely to have anything to do with the truth, but usually we will not let this deter us. This kind of mistake we make, I call the Spider. We behave like spiders when from one or a few clues we not only jump to conclusion but fill in, all by ourselves, all the (supposed) details.

Sometimes we do not even need a clue to touch off this kind of spinning. Anything will do: a word, a question, reminiscences, …; anything at all. Nature abhors a vacuum. Where knowledge is lacking we step in and fill up the void at the slightest excuse, using only our imagination.

This is not to say imagination is a bad thing. Indeed, to be a good theseologiser, we have repeatedly said, we have to be imaginative. But when we are looking for knowledge of the hidden, besides using our imagination we also have to follow clues and develop new clues from old; we cannot just depend on imagination.

There is a genre in literature called the historical novel. The author of a historical novel takes a few instances from the past and weaves a story around them. There is no pretence that the story is factually true. In a historical novel the real instances make up only a small part of the content of the novel. The greater part of the novel is the product of the imagination of the author. A historical novel is an art form, and when well done, can be riveting. The Spider is different from the historical novel. The person who behaves like the spider takes the product of her imagination to be the truth. The author of a historical novel does not.


1What he said was, truth is more likely to come out of error than of confusion.

2He will have other failures, but as far as we know, they are not due to the Norbury.

3For example, Galileo asks, if the earth moves the way Copernicus says it does, what clues can I find that will tell me this is the case?