The Esoteric Whodunit

Anatole France famously declared that “an education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don’t.” At the time, the claim may have seemed modestly pragmatic, but as modernity has advanced, the realm of the everyday unknown has exploded. Today we are perpetually immersed in what sociologist Anthony Giddens called “expert systems”: complex environments in which our safety is determined by technology whose workings no one can fully understand. We rely on cars, computers, and chemicals yet know little to nothing about how they function. There is simply too much technical knowledge at work to create the environment of the everyday for individual minds to grasp it all. Our cognitive limitations force us to defer to specialists, trusting them to manage and maintain a portion of our existence.

What helplessness, though! To recognize just how little of the world we understand — that we must almost entirely depend upon faceless experts whose motives are hidden from us — is a striking admission of our impotence and insecurity. As such, it is unsurprising that modern minds tend to shy away from this conclusion and seek instead the comforting sense of being an expert themselves. They look for ways to feel certainty when there is none, which subtly unmoors our sense of what is true. This is a natural reaction to the terror of the unknown, a coping mechanism for when technical details overflow the bounds of comprehension.

This psychological response explains the popularity of a genre that I will call the esoteric whodunit. Like a traditional whodunit, esoteric whodunits present the audience with a series of clues that, together, add up to a surprising twist. But whereas in a traditional whodunit we are given clues that draw on common sense and common knowledge about human nature — love and how it can lead to jealousy, how power corrupts human relations — the esoteric whodunit is constructed from pieces that come from well beyond the average understanding.

Consider this conversation from the medical mystery series House wherein the diagnosticians try to uncover what is ailing a young girl:

Dr. Taub: Nosebleeds and breathing problems are common symptoms of ataxia telangiectasia.
Dr. Park: We could just be seeing the natural progression of —
Dr. Lawson: [interrupting] It's not. AT patients have a life expectancy of 20 years. Emily is only six. It's something else. I examined her lungs two days ago. They're functioning normally.
Dr. Adams: It says she fell off a carousel. Head trauma —
Dr. Lawson: If the diagnosis was easy, I wouldn't need you people. I'm here because, according to Eric, you're the best.
Dr. Park: We are. Have you considered Wegener's granulomatosis?
Dr. Lawson: It's a good fit. But she can't have X-rays. AT makes her hypersensitive to ionizing radiation. I'll get her prepped for an MRI.

As it turns out, the patient is not suffering from Wegener’s granulomatosis. Nor is she suffering from heavy metal poisoning, lupus, kidney failure, Lyme disease, or any of the other hypotheses proposed. Each time a doctor suggests one of these possibilities, another steps in to inform the audience that, no, that ailment doesn’t quite match the girl’s symptoms. Only in the show’s final minutes is the real culprit revealed: atrial myxoma —a type of benign tumor.

In a traditional whodunit, the psychological gratification comes from how everything falls into place, rewarding us with a sense of discovery and understanding built upon what we already knew to begin with. It’s a feeling of simulated intelligence, of having revelations conveniently delivered without the effort and wait of our brains working everything out. In this episode of House, we see that the esoteric whodunit has an identical structure designed to elicit the same psychic reward: Every symptom suggests the conclusion, the tension building with each misdiagnosis, until the moment of resolution, when the show delivers the satisfaction of clarity and understanding.

Yet there is no true clarity: For almost all of the audience, the connection between the patient’s symptoms and an atrial myxoma is no more obvious than that between the symptoms and Wegener’s granulomatosis or Lyme disease. Unless one happens to be a specialized medical professional, the names of these diseases are words that signify nothing and are essentially interchangeable. To declare that a patient has one of these ailments is simply to tautologically define a nonsense word for the audience: What you have witnessed here tonight, ladies and gentlemen, is what strangers in lab coats call Hausian semiologica.

House is hardly anomalous in this. One can find many other examples of the esoteric whodunit, ranging from the science fiction narratives where the climax is resolved through the introduction of new physical laws — as with the deus ex machina in The Avengers, when it turns out that the mind control that permitted a massive alien invasion can be disrupted with a sharp blow to the head — to the more arcane installments of the NPR radio show Car Talk. Here is an exchange between the show’s two hosts, brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi, from their syndicated column:

Ray: Is the story possible? Can an ungrounded alternator cause this damage? I'm sure it can.…
Tom: But can you attribute it directly to the guy who changed the timing belt five months ago? That's almost impossible, at this point.
Ray: He had to loosen the alternator to remove the car's other belts in order to get at the timing belt. So it's possible he neglected to tighten the pinch bolt that grounds the alternator to the bracket through its housing.
Tom: But then why did it take five months to fail? I suppose it could have loosened up more and more over time until it was not grounded at all, but on a 10-year-old car, one of those could just as easily have failed on its own for another reason.

I’m indebted to resident Car Talk semantics expert Nadia Geddit for this example.

Here, the mystery is what caused the failure of the powertrain control module, but as far as a large portion of the audience is concerned, the brothers-cum-mechanics might as well be diagnosing one of House’s patients. “Ungrounded alternator,” “ataxia telangiectasia,” “timing belt,” “ionizing radiation” — these phrases are all empty signifiers to most people listening, and so there can be no true revelation: understanding the nature of the pieces of the puzzle is a prerequisite to understanding how they fit together.

While both House and Car Talk seem to have run their course — the two series are both ceasing production of new episodes this year — the gratification that the esoteric whodunit yields seems undiminished. Millions continue to enjoy these shows and will likely continue to enjoy the reruns, a following that can’t be explained merely by the appeal of the banter or the interpersonal drama, when so many other shows offer the same benefits without the jargon. Rather, the significance of such esoteric whodunits is their ability to provide the rewards of the traditional whodunit — that subjective feeling of understanding — without having to provide any sort of actual understanding.

There is no sleight of hand here. House does nothing to trick the its audience. Rather, the esoteric whodunit takes advantage of the sense of understanding our minds substitute for the terrifying powerlessness that otherwise comes with living amid expert systems. Instead of facing our overwhelming ignorance when confronted with the technologies that structure our lives, these shows provide the soothing sense of comprehension. So when the meaningless signifier of atrial myxoma appears on screen, the audience takes comfort: “Of course! It all makes sense!”

But the danger of the esoteric whodunit is that it makes us oblivious to our ignorance, replacing epistemic modesty with hubris. Bad advice, for example, comes from those who possess enough certainty in falsehoods to pass them on to their loved ones in the form of normative commands. Buy this homeopathic medicine, it will cure your flu for sure! Invest in this start-up, it is a guaranteed moneymaker! One can only imagine how much well-being is sacrificed every year on the altar of well-meaning friends and relatives’ perceived understanding.

More troubling, though, is the way unfounded confidence extends to the realm of the political. Four years ago, a 13-year-old named Jonathan Krohn became a right-wing star after his impassioned speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference went viral. Now, with his politics shifting leftward, the wunderkind blames his youthful views on unthinking mimesis and a false sense of certainty.

It was really reading philosophy that didn’t have anything to do with politics that gave me a breather and made me realize that a lot of what I said was ideological blather that really wasn’t meaningful. It wasn’t me thinking. It was just me saying things I had heard so long from people I thought were interesting and just came to believe for some reason, without really understanding it. I understood it enough to talk about it but not enough to have a conversation about it. 

In this respect, Krohn may very well be representative of a broad class of political actors. These are the people who have strong beliefs about macroeconomic policy without having taken even an introductory course on the subject and who parrot theoretical views with no ability to assess their validity — in other words, many of the people who appear on your Facebook feed whenever a significant piece of legislation passes. They are also the people who consistently interfere — or refuse to interfere—in the lives of others, forcing a particular ethically ungrounded interpretation of the world on them. Therein we see the dark side of House’s popularity.

Yet in Krohn’s political conversion there is hope. He attributes his recent progressivism to a newfound sense of what it is to understand something, a sense that he developed through reading philosophy. This freely available self-education is exactly what Anatole France was referring to, an encounter with knowledge that provides a contrast with that which is not actually comprehended. Too much civics education and discourse tends to do the opposite, urging people to become politically engaged by forming opinions on matters well beyond their actual knowledge. This effort is well-intentioned, meant to counter the dangerous consequences of the bureaucracy of expert systems, promoting the sort of critical thinking that might prevent blind deference to authority — a modern tendency that has historically allowed for mass atrocities. However, the pendulum may have now swung too far in the opposite direction. To lose one’s grounding in the truth is to be left vulnerable not merely to the enticements of the esoteric whodunit but to the very dangerous ideologies that give rise to atrocities in the first place.