Sherlock Holmes didn’t exist. Arthur Conan Doyle did and so it was he that came up with these famous words, ‘ Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth’. So what is impossible and how can we tell it from the improbable?
Prior to 1746 electricity was not much of a thing in our minds. Indeed our understanding of electricity only started to make practical sense from about the 1820s. If you will allow me though I would like to go back to 1601. In 1601 our ideas about electricity would have been about zero. So if someone invented a device that could generate electricity and used it in a one off murder would that have been the impossible that needed eliminating at the time?
Infant Death Syndrome 1944
Say a child died in 1601 and there was no obvious cause. The child’s mother was the only one near the child for hours. An accusation is made that the mother smothered the child. The first death of a child that was labelled as Infant Death Syndrome was in 1944. Way back in time I wonder how many people were punished for a natural ‘impossible’ death.
Azaria Chamberlain 1980
17th August that year in Australia’s Northern Territory a nine week old baby goes missing from a campsite at Uluru. The family claim that a Dingo ( a medium sized wild dog) carried the child off in its mouth.
What followed was a horror story for the family on top of the horror story of their daughter being killed. At one point Azeria’s mother spent three years in prison for killing her baby. Her husband was convicted of being an accessory after the fact and received a suspended sentence.
She would have spent longer in gaol but the child’s baby grow was found near a Dingo lair in 1986. The damage and stains on it backed up the Chamberlain story. After much wrangling in 2012 the Chamberlains finally got full exoneration when an inquest issued an amended death certificate.
There is a long reported belief that Dingoes can be a threat to children or defenceless adults. The problem was no direct evidence existed. People had talked about it but had never documented a single case. Since the case of poor Azaria more notice has been taken.
So in our 1601 example a missing child with some traces of blood around might mean some poor soul is accused and suffers for a murder. The impossible that needed eliminating here remained impossible in many minds up until only 41 years ago.
So What is the Impossible and How Do We Identify it
I give the above examples to show that at any time in history there have been things we considered impossible we later find totally probable. Electricity would have been magically impossible in 1601. Forensic science that could tell infant death syndrome from a murdered baby did not exist in 1601 and in actual fact is still a bit debatable today. As for the Dingo and the baby I’m not sure that is fully sorted out today.
Back in 1601 a person who could send a message across the known world in seconds would have to have been a witch because it was an impossible undertaking. Now it is just two people with a small box in their hands and we think nothing of it.
A Modern Example of Crazy Impossible Crime
Imagine that you and I are walking along a forest trail. It is midday and it is in England. In the UK we have probably the most innocent wildlife in the world except maybe for Iceland. You have only the vague possibility of an animal killing you. In order for that to happen you would have to trip over a rabbit or something bizarre.
So when you arrive back without me. You give the explanation. You tell them I went around the other side of a tree and disappeared. First there would be a search and imagine to your surprise, my battered body was found just where you said you last saw me. In addition, you and I had been seen having a violent quarrel in the pub the night before. The argument was about football but you said in one heated sentence ‘ If it wasn’t for all these people I would beat the shit out of you.’
Maybe the lack of forensics would clear you. You have done nothing wrong. Indeed you are as baffled as anyone. However, all it would take is some well meaning moron to say they heard raised voices when they had not or saw you acting suspiciously when you hadn’t and we know how it could go.
What Was Once Impossible Could Explain it
This summer, according to a former Director of National Intelligence, the US is to release data on unexplained ‘alien’ encounters. Due to a freedom of information law the military and intelligence services are going to let us know the information they have on this impossible issue.
John Ratcliffe is on record as saying these sightings include: ‘
‘ Objects that have been seen by Navy or Air Force pilots, or have been picked up by satellite imagery that frankly engage in actions that are difficult to explain. Movements that are hard to replicate that we don’t have the technology for Or travelling at speeds that exceed the sound barrier without a sonic boom.’
In addition he claims these objects have been tracked through multiple regions.
So how about I was abducted by aliens and dropped roughly as they flew off in a hurry or I was given a pasting by their security for refusing to remove my gum. You didn’t do it, ET did.
The point I am making is there are many cases where the improbable and the impossible merge. I mean I know people who state without doubt that no alien ship could travel from the farthest parts of outer space because physics does not allow the for possibility. Well in 1601 what would they have said about the idea of 60 inch TVs?
Making absolute statements based on what is possible or improbable now is how you fill a ship of fools. A detective in my view would look for evidence but examine any possibility or impossibility that presented itself. Conclusions are something I seldom come to. Theories I have in spades. Each allowing for the chance that the next fact or even the next discovery will render my theory invalid.
I grant you no matter what the Pentagon might have waiting in the wings there is no tangible evidence for alien abduction right now. Then again there is often no tangible connection between the survivor of a woodland walk and a sudden suspicious death. That, like the death of Azaria Chamberlain, does not prevent poor detective work leading to wrongful conviction.
What if alien space craft are proved to exist? Isn’t alien abduction then rendered less impossible and more just improbable?
I’m Not Suggesting Crazy Assumptions. I am Just Saying Have Fun With the Impossible
The benefits of considering every impossibility can range from the hilarious to really stunning insights. If we exercise our minds in true critical thinking it is unlikely that we will settle on ridiculous theories. More likely we will not miss obvious logical lines of enquiry.
We will still have DNA evidence, other forensic evidence, knife wounds, ballistics, marks of strangulation, CCTV, witness statements, audio recording, scene of crime photos, motives and confessions. Given the great gifts of science and experience it is unlikely that a body in the woods will be considered first a victim of the Klingons.
‘ Once you eliminate the impossible whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.’
I suggest by considering carefully what is impossible you can then make an intelligent use of the improbable…There my friends is likely to be found the essence of the great detective.
NB Sir Arthur was of course a spiritualist so when it comes to the impossible and improbable he was the epitome of the openminded thinker. Not that I side with some of his ideas. The fairies story is a good example. Hey, but maybe I am wrong on that. What do you think? Is there an impossible or is all just improbable?