One of Nero Wolfe’s statements is really quite profound. And it’s one I’ve heard for years, long before I heard of Mr. Wolfe. It was just in a different form.
When a police official is talking with Wolfe about how certain people couldn’t have done a certain crime, and the problems of eliminating suspects, Wolfe corrects him.
Wolfe doesn’t eliminate suspects. He proves guilt. He’s not looking for who didn’t do it. He’s only looking to find who did it. If it’s needed, he may also find some proof they did it.
But chew on that for a bit: he’s there to only prove who did the crime. He’s not checking alibis to eliminate suspects. Why bother eliminating suspects when all you need to do is find out who did the crime and prove it?
On some level it sounds the same. After all, if a certain person or persons did it, then the other suspects are eliminated anyways. But the methodology is quite different. Instead of looking at each person and figuring out if they did or didn’t do it, you’re looking at each possibility and finding the correct one that establishes the truth of the matter.
How to make this simple? There’s an analogy I’ve heard before that fits this perfectly. And you know what, there’s a Mythbusters segment that also gives weight to this.
First the analogy. Teaching cashiers to spot fake dollars. Instead of showing them counterfeits and how to find them, the thought is to teach them how to confirm a real dollar is real. Voila, you’re no longer proving it’s not a counterfeit, you’re having them prove the dollar is real. Much less to remember. No elimination of various routes required. Prove guilt (prove real dollar), and it eliminates the innocent (counterfeit).
And here Rex Stout was having Nero Wolfe prove that point repeatedly in the 30s.
The Mythbusters segment? It was testing whether people really knew the back of their hands, like the expression goes. I know it like the back of my hand!
Turns out that yes, people know the back of their hands quite well. But here’s the part of the segment that exemplified the superiority of proving truths. The people were shown several hands on a wall, and were asked to pick their own out. These false hands were chosen to look similar to the original. First, the result was that people did find their own hand.
But the second part is the important part: most people found their hand quickly. Very, very quickly. In fact, it looks like once they found their hand, they didn’t bother checking the other photos to make sure. They saw it, knew it was theirs, and picked it out. Yes, they were wearing gloves to make sure they couldn’t check. Also interesting point of note: they didn’t know palms as well!.
It looks like they were doing the same thing as the prior examples. Find their hand (real dollar / true criminal), and then they don’t need to eliminate the other hands (various counterfeits / non-guilty suspects).
There are times that proving the truth is difficult given certain evidence (take the court systems for example, where a lot of the time all that the court can do is eliminate as many falsities as possible), but it doesn’t change that a superior method to elimination of non-truths is a proof of the real truth.
That’s quite an interesting way of looking at various problems.