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No. 1519:
Seeing Around the Corner

Today, we wonder where knowledge comes from. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Let me try a question on you: Was Sherlock Holmes a Platonist or an Aristotelian? Speaking simplistically, a Platonist deduces the truth of the surrounding world, and an Aristotelian expects the world to reveal itself. Observational sciences tend to be Aristotelian, while much of math and art is Platonist. Artists create realities in their heads before they present them to the world.

Now, on to Sherlock Holmes: A woman walks in his door. Before she says anything to reveal herself, Holmes tells her that she's married, but estranged from her husband, that she wasn't able to hail a cab on the way over, and that she's deaf in her right ear. Has he shown great powers of observation or of deduction?

Well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that he's used both, and he's used them very well indeed. It is precisely the use of these two opposing modes of thinking that makes Holmes such a fascinating creation. We everyday humans let our thinking polarize. Holmes shows what we might accomplish by being less one-sided.

The much-used Meyers-Briggs temperament test dramatizes all this. The Meyers-Briggs test identifies us by dichotomies in our thinking. One of its four categories is the so-called N-S dichotomy -- literally iNtuitive vs. Sensate. Actually, those are unfortunate words because they pit the mystic against the tactile. What's really involved is the way we expect to gain knowledge.

Aristotelians will read the manual. Platonists expect to be able to figure things out on their own. Platonists shake their heads over the time wasted by Aristotelians. Aristotelians wonder why Platonists won't take the time to get it right the first time.

The rest of the Meyers-Briggs test speaks to much more obvious matters: introversion vs. extroversion, objectivity vs. subjectivity, the need for closure vs. the need to keep the case open. But the N-S or Platonist-Aristotelian division is harder for us to see in everyday life. As a result, it divides us sharply.

Test results show that three-quarters of our American population is Aristotelian -- S-type. Practical economics leads to public school systems that speak that way to students. They're taught to learn from their books and from their teachers.

You'll surely wonder, "Is that bad?" Well, of course not. But, like Sherlock Holmes, well-educated students will also trust their ability to figure things out. They'll notice that the woman coming in the door has no wedding ring. But they'll also figure out that the crease around her finger means that she did wear one until recently.

Einstein did that: claimed little interest in knowledge he didn't create in his head, yet his powers of observation were Holmesian. Our students must also be bilingual in their language of learning. Math and science in particular demand that they access knowledge by two vastly different avenues. They must be both able to read the manual and able to figure it out for themselves as well.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Illustration of Holmes at work in A Study in Scarlet 

Illustration of Holmes at work in A Study in Scarlet