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| 1 minute read

The Magical Detective

Hidden deep within Daniel Immerwahr’s fascinating New Yorker article on deepfakes is the story of how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of one of the greatest fictional detectives of all time, fell for doctored photographs of girls playing with fairies and even authored a book extolling them as evidence of a supernatural world.

The tale is a textbook example of the confirmation bias — the tendency to give weight to information that reinforces our beliefs and discard that which does not, even if that confirming information may be faulty. 

As Immerwahr notes in his article, our information landscape is increasingly populated with faulty, manipulated digital information, from sophisticated deepfakes to crude disinformation to the simplest falsehoods. While these misrepresentations may not portend an information apocalypse, when their elements match our preconceived notions, they can easily and sometimes unconsciously influence our decision making. And when that decision making involves critical business decisions – who to hire, what to acquire, how to navigate a challenge or counter an adversary – remaining clear-eyed is imperative.

The ability to counter cognitive biases is one of the true skills of the professional investigator, who is counted on to evaluate purported facts and report them dispassionately. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could have benefited from engaging someone with the skills of his fictional master detective before embarking on his own reputation-damaging endeavor.

If Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales describe a detective who, from a few stray facts, sees through baffling mysteries, his “Coming of the Fairies” tells the story of a man who, with all the facts in the world, cannot see what is right in front of his face.