Can Sherlock Holmes Teach Us About Avalanches? Part 1

When it comes to the science of avalanches, this fictional detective from the late 1800s probably cannot tell us anything about avalanches. However, when it comes to making decisions about playing and working safely in avalanche terrain, the master detective Sherlock Holmes can tell us plenty. Famous for his astute logical reasoning and his forensic skills to solve complex cases, Sherlock Holmes looked at things backwards. And when it comes to avalanches; that’s exactly what we should do.

No, Holmes did not suffer from some strange form of Dyslexia, rather Holmes reasoned backwards. Unlike most people who think along a line of cause to effect, Holmes thought from effect to cause. He tells that to his sidekick John H. Watson MD (aka Dr. Watson) the narrator in Arthur Conan Doyle’s first story of Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet (1887).

“All life is a great chain, the nature of which is known wherever we are shown a single link of it…In solving a problem of this sort, the grand thing is to be able to reason backwards.”

Holmes’ diagnostic skills are not outdated. His methods and reasoning can do a lot for us to stay safe and have fun. This multipart essay will explore how and why Sherlock Holmes can make us better decision makers in avalanche terrain. Before explaining the hows and whys, let’s jump ahead 100 years to see how medicine and avalanches are similar. Doctors were early adapters of Sherlock Holmes’ methods.

Medicine and avalanches

In Kathryn Montgomery Hunter’s 1991 treatise, Doctors Stories, she details the interpretive nature of medicine and the profound importance of the narrative, and not just when communicating between doctors and patients, but when diagnosing the patient, too. Hunter is a self-described outsider as she started as an English professor on the faculty of Morehouse Medical School, a lone literary scholar surrounded by a throng of Ph.D’s and MD’s. For two years she worked as “an ethnographer among a white-coated tribe.” She studied the teaching and learning styles in medical school. She concluded that the study of medicine interpretive.

Like many medical and murder mysteries, many avalanche problems are easily solved. Someone mowing the lawn develops chest pain. In the emergency room an electrocardiogram shows a heart attack. A dead body is found in front of the cash register. A security camera identifies the killer, and fingerprints and ballistic tests confirm the weapon and shooter. Heavy snow and strong winds load steep, lee slopes. Skiing shallow slopes causes shooting cracks, and explosives trigger avalanches on steeper slopes. The avalanche danger is high. Sometimes, however, doctors, detectives, and backcountry travelers face far more challenging quandaries. Clues conflict or lead to dead ends. An incorrect conclusion can lead to an inappropriate treatment or the release of the guilty person (or imprisonment of the innocent). For the backcountry rider, snowmobiler, or snow-safety professional, the consequences can be grave: someone — and that might be you — can die.

To make the right decisions the actions of the doctor, detective, and snow-lover are similar. We observe, test, interpret, and then take action. But how we snow-lovers go about interpreting the information is different than the doctor and detective, and this puts the snow-lover at a potentially dangerous disadvantage.

Hunter wrote, “The practice of medicine is an interpretive activity” and the same can be said about avalanches. To reduce the possibility of making a critical mistake in medicine, clinicians adopted the narrative approach and reasoning of Sherlock Holmes. In medicine the process is called the “deferential diagnosis.” Princeton’s worldnetweb defines it as “a systematic method of diagnosing a disorder (e.g., headache) that lacks unique symptoms or signs.” Seems to me we can substitute “avalanche danger” for the disorder on those days when Nature’s signs and symptoms are unclear. The DD was developed and popularized by medical reformer Richard Cabot, who was just graduating college when the first Sherlock Holmes stories were published. Basically, the DD is a process-of-elimination method that starts with the chief complaint (effect) that is examined in terms of causal factors (cause). This thinking backwards is precisely what Conan Doyle’s fictional character Sherlock Holmes advocates.

To deliberate from effect to cause is not how most people think. How often have you ever heard those words in that order? Seldom or never, I suspect. Most people think forward — cause to effect. Holmes tells Watson the ratio is about 50 forward thinkers to 1 backwards thinker. The problem with forward reasoning — cause to effect — is that it allows us “to twist facts to suit theories.” In avalanche accidents, too often people do exactly that. They twist the facts to suit their theory the slope is stable. Holmes suggests we should “[twist] theories to suit facts.”

Part 2. How Sherlock Holmes Thinks Backwards.

Part 3. Thinking Backwards About Avalanches.

Thanks for reading.
Dale Atkins

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3 Responses to Can Sherlock Holmes Teach Us About Avalanches? Part 1

  1. Mark Mueller says:

    Very interesting Dale. I look forward to reading more. Thanks for the link.

  2. Brad Sawtell says:

    Indeed, interesting! I am liking where you are going with this concept. On to part 2!

  3. Jeff Sparhawk says:

    Innovative thoughts Dale.
    Medical doctors diagnose to determine sickness and then strive for health.
    Avalanche professionals diagnose to determine danger and then strive for safety.
    Proactive or reactive, the duties and challenges are quite similar.

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