Every night, a ritual plays out at our home. When the day is done, the missus slumps into bed and I, all droopy-eyed, make a brave attempt to read. But this is also the hour our seven-year-old daughter has been waiting for, because there are questions on her mind that she needs answers to.
What is soap made of? What is air? Why can’t dogs talk? Why do rockets burn when they fly back down from space?
My half-asleep wife makes some valiant attempts to answer. As for me, I think I probably seem incredibly stupid to my little girl — a grown man with so many books and no answers to even her simplest questions.
The truth is, of course, that her questions aren’t simple at all. Because she is engaged in deeply scientific inquiry as she sets out, with no preconceived notions, to discover the world around her. She doesn’t know that some of these are unanswerable questions; she doesn’t know that unanswerable exists.
As the psychologist Maria Konnikova points out in her lovely book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, “The scientific method begins with the most mundane seeming of things: observation.”
This is why, Konnikova writes, “It’s not for nothing that [Sherlock] Holmes calls the foundations of his inquiry elementary.” The questions my daughter is asking are the outcome of close observation and much thought. To place that in perspective, Konnikova suggests we understand how some of the finest thinkers of our times asked questions.
When the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman was asked to revamp high school science textbooks in the US, he looked over existing ones and declared that they were designed to leave children more confused than before.
One textbook that really made him throw his hands up in exasperation had images in it of a windup toy, an automobile, a boy on a bicycle. Below each there was the question: “What makes it go?” The stated answer was: “Energy makes it go.”
There was no attempt to explain what energy is, why it makes things go, or how. Without answering these questions, Feynman pointed out, ‘energy’ was just a word. An empty word, in fact, with no meaning.
Those who wrote textbooks and taught them, he argued, actually ought to be showing the kids how to “…look at the windup toy, see that there are springs inside, learn about springs, learn about wheels, and never mind energy.”
Because after children figure all this out, it will be only a matter of time before they come around to discussing the principles of energy and how it can be applied. And let’s admit it, how many adults ever got around to that stage of the answer?
I must acknowledge that I was unable to answer the question, what is soap made of and why does it bubble up. I have long forgotten any elementary chemistry I knew. And yet I just discovered there is an unread book on the history of air on my bookshelf. Whatever happened? When did I stop asking all those big little questions?
Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist and economist, was awarded a Nobel Prize for demonstrating that our minds have two ways of thinking — System 1 and System 2. The former is fast, instinctive and emotional while the latter is slower, more deliberate and logical.
To wrap the head around that, System 1 is what Dr Watson, Sherlock Holmes’s assistant, uses; System 2 is what detective Holmes deploys. For the sake of this discussion, let’s call System 1 the Watson Method and System 2 the Holmes.
Children use the Holmes Method to observe things around them. Try it out. Shut your eyes and imagine the house you grew up in, the sights outside the window, the people. Chances are you will remember most of it in vivid detail. As adults, most of us shift to the Watson Method because it’s easier. (And life is tough enough.)
To confirm this, ask yourself: How many stairs do you have to climb (or how many footsteps is it) from the gate to your front door? Can you picture the surface of your desk at work? You can’t, can you? The Watson Method has taken over.
The Watson Method is proof that it’s not easy to ask questions that matter. Sherlock Holmes’s strike rate is proof that we should. And Arthur Conan Doyle is a reminder that you don’t have to choose one or the other.
The writer is co-founder at Founding Fuel and co-author of The Aadhaar Effect
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