The Joseph Bell Centre : Bell could tell patients their habits, their occupations, nationality, and often their names, and rarely, if ever, made a mistake.

The physician Dr Joseph Bell, reportedly could determine the occupation of a random stranger just by looking at him. The famous detective Sherlock Holmes was based on this fellow. Is this possible and what observations could be used to precisely determine the occupation of a stranger?

  • 2
    Could you come up with a link or citation to support your claim? Also, what type of answer are you looking for? If someone is wearing overalls with lots of dried paint, it could be an easy guess - but are you talking about people in business casual and the like as well? – MCM Dec 20 '12 at 13:55
  • 1
    I don't think you have answered MCM's second question. What could we possibly say to answer this? You can often tell painters from the traces of paint. You can often tell violinists from the "hickey" on their neck. You can often tell women who stand all day (e.g. retail, nurses) by the shape of their calves. How many such observations do we need to list? How can we prove you can't distinguish between a discrete mathematician and a statistician by their appearance? – Oddthinking Dec 20 '12 at 14:21
  • 2
    Here's a skeptical view: Dr Bell is reported to have been able to tell their name too. Good observation skills + lucky guesses + misremembering hits versus misses + poor reporting + no scientific study is sufficient to explain all of this. (All together these are known as cold-reading. That should be the direction of your research.) – Oddthinking Dec 20 '12 at 21:40
  • 2
    Here is a Skeptics.SE view: There is no definitive answer here. We can't hope to list every possible observation he might have made. We can't hope to prove there is NO WAY to tell the difference between, say, a discrete mathematician and a statistician. There is no evidence that he could tell the difference between them - the sensitivity and specificity of his skills aren't known - so there is no claim to refute. We can't prove he was using cold-reading techniques. This question is unanswerable in its current form. – Oddthinking Dec 20 '12 at 21:43
  • 2
    @Oddthinking - And what if the discrete mathematician is a particularly discreet one? – user3344 Dec 28 '12 at 15:39

An example is given at http://www.irishexaminer.com/analysis/fiction-imitates-real-life-in-a-case-of-true-inspiration-172752.html

Bell once remarked to an astonished outpatient: “I know you are a beadle and ring the bells on Sundays at a church in Northumberland somewhere near the Tweed.” “I’m all that,” said the man, “but how do you know? I never told you.” The outpatient left, bewildered. Bell turned to his students: “Did you notice the Northumbrian burr in his speech, too soft for the south of Northumberland? One only finds it near the Tweed. And then his hands. Did you not notice the callosities on them caused by the ropes? Also, this is Saturday, and when I asked him if he could not come back on Monday, he said he must be getting home tonight. Then I knew he had to ring the bells tomorrow. Quite easy, gentleman, if you will only observe and put two and two together.”

Notice that he got information in several ways. The dialect, the callosities and asking about the day.

| improve this answer | |
  • Just like Sherlock! – SaturnsEye Oct 22 '14 at 11:22
  • 8
    This has been accepted as an answer? It is merely an example of the claim! – Oddthinking Oct 22 '14 at 12:25
  • 1
    I think the problem is that the article you quote doesn't give any references to primary sources, or provide any real evidence that the reported incident actually took place. – Nate Eldredge Oct 22 '14 at 14:09
  • 6
    You beat me to it, @Nate. There is no mention of who Bell said this to, when, or who witnessed it ("students"?). To be impressed with Bell, we also need to know if he frequently made incorrect claims, and that he didn't actually receive this information from other channels. (e.g. recognised the outpatient from church, or saw his patient records). This anecdote is of little evidentiary value. – Oddthinking Oct 22 '14 at 14:23
  • 1
    Thanks for the edit, @SVilcans, but I fear it doesn't help. The sentence starting "Notice he got information[...]" should more accurately read "Notice, according to this third-party anecdotal claim written 100 years after his death, he got information[...]" – Oddthinking Oct 22 '14 at 17:02

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .