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85 Vauxhall Cross vs. 221b Baker Street – Is Holmes actually better than Bond?

At least this is what Lieutenant General (ret.) Samuel L. Wilson, former director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), suggests in his citation found partly also in our blog’s subtitle: “Ninety percent of intelligence comes from open sources. The other ten percent, the clandestine work, is just the more dramatic. The real intelligence hero is Sherlock Holmes and not James Bond.”

Sherlock Bond

Sherlock Bond / © F. S.

Both Holmes and Bond are fictional and heroic characters supporting authorities in hunting down the bad guys. James Bond, also known as 007, a double-oh-agent with the license to kill in Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service (more commonly known as MI6), was created by Ian Fleming in 1953. It is noteworthy that Fleming himself served in Naval Intelligence intelligence during World War II before becoming an author. More than half a century earlier, in 1887, the first adventure of “consulting detective” Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle, was published. While Bond – largely popularized through the meanwhile 23 movies – has traits of both a gentleman and a dandy, Holmes is characterized by much more introversion, sometimes even autism. Sherlock Holmes, in contrary to James Bond, does not rely on special gadgets, but only on his very peculiar investigation skills – his superior intellect, accurate observation and the science of deduction, which is introduced in A Study in Scarlet. Despite these differences, both characters are similarly fascinating to readers and viewers, and both have become iconic.

However, Doyle’s stories are by far more realistic than Fleming’s. Admittedly, the master detective’s line of conclusions often seems like magic to us, too, or as Watson, Holmes’ loyal companion, puts it: “…without leaving your room you can unravel some knot which other men can make nothing of, although they have seen every detail for themselves…”. Deduction is the process of reasoning from general assumptions and theories to reach logical conclusions about specific cases. Technically, deduction is synonymous with logic. A conclusion can only be wrong if one or more premises are wrong. The opposite of deduction is induction – developing a general theory from observing specific cases. Therefore, at best, inductive reasoning can only be probable or plausible, never logically certain. More colloquially, induction is synonymous with (undue – as David Hume, Nelson Goodman or Karl Popper have advocated) generalization. As a matter of fact, inductive reasoning is often applied in investigations, which are usually prone to many cognitive biases. Unfortunately, in the real world, the underlying premises of deductive conclusions often stem from induction themselves and are therefore subject to inaccuracy as well. Hence the deduction’s dependence on the correctness of its premises. It is his analytical precision that makes Sherlock Holmes a superior investigator, not just in comparison to the fervent, and sometimes trigger-happy James Bond.

In Commander Bond’s defense, he actually is an MI6 operative, not an analyst, and not less a ‘hero’ as Holmes. Yet, speaking of all his gadgets, the double-oh-status and secret operations involving sports cars, women and martinis – as important the clandestine work in intelligence undoubtedly is, it does not make up the bulk of the input and is not necessarily more relevant for the intelligence requirement than OSINT. And, in reality, it certainly is not even remotely as glamorous as Bond’s tax-funded lifestyle suggests. Sherlock Holmes, until the point when the police or a client gives him extended authority and permission, actually gets most of his information from newspapers and – rather legal and overt – sleuthing supported by his companion Watson or his network of sources on the streets of London.

Currently, James Bond enjoys much attention at the occasion of his 50th filmographic anniversary since his first movie appearance in Dr. No in 1962. As much as it appears impossible to imagine Mr. Sherlock Holmes sitting in 221b Baker Street in his reading chair smoking his pipe while singing “Underneath the mango tree, me honey and me can watch for the moon”, we would not like to see 007 in an inverness cape and with a deerstalker. Surely, both characters have inspired many to become professionally involved in the field (just as Top Gun drove many young men into the US Navy and Air Force), be it as an analyst or as an investigator in either foreign and domestic intelligence or law enforcement investigations. Still, my cautious guess is that the respective authorities would rather want a – probably less grumpy – Sherlock Holmes, than a James Bond.

In our blog and other publications we regularly demonstrate the high value of open sources in the intelligence production process – in terms of quantity as well as quality. After having shown our appreciation for both characters, in the light of our work, we can only support General Wilson’s aforementioned claim that, while 007 remains excellent entertainment, Sherlock Holmes deserves being called a true intelligence hero.


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