Beyond Seeing: Observing

Voters and reporters face some special but commonly-shared challenges in every election cycle. Each segment in its own way has a public or personal responsibility to see beyond the half-baked claims and the half-truths of those who seek political power. The higher the stakes, the greater beating honesty takes.

Uh-oh. I didn’t realize until I read that last sentence that I had written a brief but accurate poem.

That’s okay because a tune with some cleverly-rhyming lyrics from a 1965 Broadway musical has been running through my mind for a few days. You know how a tune pops into your mind and you can’t get rid of it? Maybe one way to scrub it is to deposit it into another file–this blog for example.

The musical was “Baker Street,” loosely based on a Sherlock Holmes story, A Scandal in Bohemia. Fritz Weaver played Sherlock. Marian Grudeff wrote the music and Raymond Jessel wrote the lyrics that are relevant to the responsibilities of reporters and to voters alike during campaigns such as the ones we are about to survive. The production, incidentally, was the Broadway debut of Tommy Tune and Christopher Walken.

Early in the play a young military officer in civilian clothes seeks out Holmes at 221B Baker Street. Holmes, to the astonishment of the young man and to Dr. Watson, correctly identifies the young man as a military officer, correctly guesses which school he had gone to, identifies his problem as being woman-related, and deduces that Watson went to a specific post office to send a message earlier in the day. As the young officer and Watson express amazement at Holmes’ talents, he sings to them:

It’s so simple.
The facts are there before your eyes.
And it’s so simple,
Absurdly simple,
if you learn not just to see but to observe.
Put your brain to work,
not just your optic nerve.
If you put your mind to use,
You will find the most abstruse
Becomes so simple,
Oh yes, so simple,
Just as simple as as a simple thing can be.

…It’s all so simple,
absurdly simple.
Why do people always fail to realize
That it’s not enough to merely use their eyes.
They keep going ’round half blind
Never using what’s behind…
You see it’s simple,
Oh yes, it’s simple,
However difficult it first might appear.

And Holmes (Weaver) concludes, as Holmes should, “It’s elementary!”

Audio MP3

Our political campaigners prefer that the voters they try to sway do not think. It’s so much easier if voters accept easily-made promises, do not challenge often stretched claims of misbehavior by their opponents, and accept often stretched claims of accomplishments. Sometimes we ask candidates after the elections what their campaigns did to improve public confidence in the political system. We’ve never had one come close to suggesting that their campaign was run with anything but the highest level of integrity.

That’s why it’s so important that all of us “learn not just to see but to observe.” That’s why it’s so important to, “Put your brain to work, not just your optic nerve.”

Maria Kannikova wrote a series of articles for Scientific American magazine last year called “Lessons from Sherlock Holmes.” She notes in one entitled “Don’t Just See, Observe” that Holmes’ understandings of the human mind “do more to teach us about how we do think and how we SHOULD think.” Among other topics in her series:

Paying Attention to What isn’t There; Cultivate What You Know to Optimize How You Decide; Perspective is Everything, Details are Nothing; The Situation Is in the Mindset of the Observer; Don’t Decide Before You Decide; Trust in Facts, Not Your Version of Them; and The Power of Public Opinion.

Her writings will be published next January in a book called Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.

In the meantime, especially in the days leading up to November 6, perhaps we can remember Sherlock’s song from Broadway in 1965 to

Learn not just to see
But to observe.
Put your brain to work,
not just your optic nerve.

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