In a Sherlock Holmes story about the disappearance of the racehorse Silver Blaze and the murder of its trainer, this exchange occurs between a Scotland Yard inspector and the famous amateur sleuth:
Inspector Gregory: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Sherlock Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Inspector Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Sherlock Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”
We are biased toward focusing on what we see, not what we don’t see.
The word salient is defined as ‘noticeable or important’ and yet what’s noticeable isn’t always important, and what’s important isn’t always noticeable. We’re evolutionarily gifted with the ability to focus on some things and ignore the rest. If we had to think about every blade of grass as we drove, we’d miss the next stop sign for sure. But what happens when this instinctive ability goes astray?
The saliency bias is when we rely on the most apparent information and overlook things that are not as visible. The slight of hand of a magician takes advantage of this bias. We’re misdirected toward a flourish of the right hand while the left hand pockets a card that will be magically removed from the same pocket at the climax of the trick.
I was thinking about the saliency bias—which ironically is itself often overlooked, even in lengthy lists of biases—as I read a flier for an event at a local school.
Copiously illustrated with kids, the flier looked cheerful and inviting—but… Hesitantly, hoping not to offend, I wrote an email to point out what I didn’t see, such as: BIPOC kids, anyone who wasn’t standing on two feet, anyone who wasn’t looking slim. There was no diversity in the dozen-plus figures representing this event.
Granted, Vermont is tied for whitest state in the nation, and last year I got in local trouble for writing to a food coop about whether they would be willing to diversify their board and staff. So it’s understandable that such an omission could slip beneath the attention radar of a local school.
This time my email didn't blow up in my face. In fact the response was wonderful: An unintended oversight. Definitely will work on it for next time. Never thought!
I do believe they didn’t think about it. Cognitive biases are, quite simply, our blind spots—but sometimes it’s what we don’t think about that matters most.
As a young boy I stumbled upon a thick volume of Sherlock Holmes mysteries. One of my favorites was the story of Silver Blaze quoted above. Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard is stumped because he doesn’t pay attention to the negative clue. But who hears a dog not barking?
Yet as Holmes deduced, the curious incident of the dog that didn’t bark is the key to the mystery because it blows apart the detective’s theory that a stranger had stolen the horse. The trainer took the horse out himself because he was in desperate financial straights and had agreed to nick a muscle in the horse’s rear leg—thus allowing a competitor to win big with his long-shot second favorite horse. The trainer had taken the horse some distance away in case it kicked up a fuss, and it did, accidentally kicking him in the head. Mystery solved.
The saliency bias can be found everywhere. Ironically, it even applies to the Sherlock Holmes stories themselves. How? Because, as with that flier, there are lots of people who mysteriously seem to be missing from Sherlock Holmes’ London.
Holmes’ clients are ‘respectable’ light-skinned Brits who we would identify today as White. The stories are set in the 1880s and beyond, and common thought is that London was a White city back then. But was it? You might want to look up this story from the London newspaper The Evening Standard: “Photographs of black Britons in the 1800s unearthed after 125 years reveal ‘rich and diverse black presence.’” (I’ll post a sample portrait here and on my Instagram and Facebook pages.)
As the article explains, the portraits that had been buried in the museum’s basement for 125 years “challenge the assumption that there was not a black presence in Britain.” In point of fact, the Roman Empire introduced Blacks to Britain and by Sherlock Holmes’ time, London had a significant Black population, along with a large Irish population, Italian, French and Chinese neighborhoods, and more. I’m no expert on British history, but I know enough to take note of who we don’t see in the Sherlock Holmes oeuvre.
When angry politicians and irate parents shout about so-called Critical Race Theory (they’ve even given it an acronym, CRT, since they find themselves talking about it so frequently), they are asserting that discrimination or slavery cannot be mentioned. I gotta say, hey, you already won this war a long time ago. So-called liberals like myself who want to see more color in the official teaching of U.S. history are only trying to introduce a little bit of a vast truth that has long since been buried deep out of sight.
Because, just like in those Sherlock Holmes stories, our telling of U.S. history leaves out more than it puts in. There is a pervasive bias that doesn’t include most Americans’ stories and gives a very false impression of the salient facts.
U.S. history lessons give the impression that by and large this was a nation built by White people. I probably don’t need to remind you that this is a nation built by Black slaves, Chinese and Irish laborers and other immigrants whose stories are important too.
And was it the manifest destiny of European Whites to discover and develop the wilderness—or did they actually take the land from an already-thriving indigenous population?
If the main people covered in our stories of our nation’s history are White men, then we, like the hapless Inspector Lestrade, will not able to see the hidden truths. A saliency bias is everywhere in our nation’s stories about itself, and the current effort to distract us with strident complaints about how ‘uncomfortable’ some things make White parents feel is just a new version of the illusionist’s classic misdirection.
As long as we don’t hear their stories or see their faces in our history books, it’s easy to forget about millions of people who have always been integral to this nation and whose stories deserve to be honored just as much as anyone’s do.
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and The Oxford Adventure (available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon, or at your local bookstore). He’s also a parent and teacher who currently lives in Putney, Vermont.