The science of deduction

“Elementary my dear Watson”, is a cliché phrase that we automatically associate to non-other than the well-dressed, well-articulated charismatic yet enigmatic Englishman Sherlock Holmes, often depicted chewing on a Jamaican or a pipe, staring at the ceiling on a rocking chair amidst clouds of white fumes, and who made a name for himself by solving major crimes based on the smallest details.

However, unlike the man who (unfortunately for me) was nothing more than a figment of Arthur Conan Doyle’s imagination, his methods are more than real: They are currently being used by investigation agencies around the world such as the FBI to put criminals behind bars.

Holmes’ method was as simple as it was effective. On any given case: “Observing rather than seeing”. He gathered as much evidence as he could for small yet relevant details of crime scenes, helping him eliminate amongst the several eventual hypotheses. The ones that were the least likely to have occurred were eliminated first, ending up with the most probable scenario.

He would particularly focus on a suspect’s behavior to search for tell signs of his guilt or innocence. A simple example of this would be a suspect avoiding eye contact with his arms crossed in defense: Most likely, the person in question would be lying or afraid.

This method of deduction, now called criminal profiling as well as physiognomy was first introduced in criminology in the U.S.A in 1956 in order to solve the “mad bomber” case: Georges Metesky has been planting homemade bombs for 16 years all over New York, leaving a handwritten note behind every time, managing to elude the NYPD’s conventional crime solving methods. That lead investigators to turn to psychiatrist James Brussel hoping to get answers which would help them resolve the case. Soon enough, based on information the NYPD had already gathered concerning the suspect as well as on his notes, Dr. Brussel was able to create a profile of the criminal, eventually leading into his arrest: “He would be unmarried, foreign, self-educated, in his 50s, living in Connecticut, paranoid and with a vendetta against Con–Edison” (The company the bomber had last worked for). Dr. Brussels had even managed to accurately predict what Mr. Metesky would be wearing on the moment of his arrest.

This case had a major impact on crime solving and was a turning point in the history of criminology. Since then, police departments all around the world started to seek psychologists to narrow down their list of suspects for a crime. The FBI, for instance, has become famous for training the best criminal profilers, dubbing the relatively new discipline “criminal investigative analysis”.

What this tells us about criminal investigation is that no matter how advanced crime solving technology gets, it all comes down at the end of the day to the investigator’s common sense, logic and most importantly sense of observation, something that Arthur Conan Doyle understood and flawlessly illustrated through Sherlock Holmes more than a century ago.

Samer Saad

Second year of Law

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