Subject: Epistemology – The Columbo Method
Event: Premiere of the television detective drama Columbo, 1968.
The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge. -Thomas Berger
Imagine if the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates became the lead in a new detective television series. It’s not that far of a stretch when you consider that Socrates was consumed by the same thing that all television detectives are. Like Socrates, they are on an epistemological quest for knowledge, more specifically, knowledge that will lead them to the truth.
Socrates used an analogy to describe the difference between unsound truth and sound truth. He imagined two beautiful statues by the sculptor Daedalus. The unsound truth, which came about via intuition, is like a statue placed precariously atop a pillar. The first strong wind that comes along will knock it over. The sound truth, however, is anchored to the ground by tethering cables, making it impervious to even gale-force winds. For Socrates, the test of differentiating the unsound truth from the sound truth was to determine which one stood up under the scrutiny of questioning (1).
When we think of Socrates today, we probably think of his characteristic toga, and we probably also think about his characteristic Socratic method of questioning.
Another character known for his characteristic dress and method is the television detective Columbo. Instead of a toga, he wore a raincoat. Like Socrates, he valued questioning, but he added a wrinkle that made his method memorable and particularly effective for fighting crime.
The television show Columbo — which premiered on this day in 1968 — had a unique template. Instead of following the typical “whodunnit” structure of traditional detective dramas, the Columbo writers inverted the template, beginning each episode by making the audience eye-witnesses to the crime being committed, which included knowing the identity of the perpetrator. Instead of being a “whodunit,” Columbo followed the “howcatchem” format. After seeing the crime committed before their eyes, the audience then got to see the cigar-smoking, raincoat-clad detective Columbo sniff out the trail of clues until he found the guilty party.
Like Socrates, an essential element of Colombo’s method was questions; however, his approach was a bit more indirect. It begins with an understanding of the importance of first and last impressions. Psychologists who study memory highlight the serial position effect and our tendency to recall best what is presented first (primacy effect) and what is presented last (recency effect).
Columbo’s method began with a first impression that was deliberately crafted to disarm a suspect. His disheveled appearance and his seemingly absent-minded manner put the suspect at ease, and his opening questions were always casual, respectful, and non-threatening, designed to get the suspect talking about things other than homicide.
Columbo’s final interactions with a suspect were also deliberately designed to leave an impression. Just as he appeared to be finishing his meeting and turning to leave, he would turn back around and say, “There’s just one more thing.” Having thought that their interaction with the detective had concluded, the suspect would be caught off guard At this point Columbo would point out facts from the case that appeared to be in conflict. Instead of presenting this conflict in an accusatory manner, he would state it in a way that was self-deprecating, rubbing his head and expressing his own confusion, appearing to give the suspect the benefit of the doubt. He would then deliver the final probing question which the suspect — being disarmed by Columbo’s odd manner — would answer in a careless, less than thoughtful way, often revealing something important (2).
In one episode called “How to Dial a Murder,” one suspect, who happened to be a psychologist, saw through Columbo’s method, saying, “You’re a fascinating man, Lieutenant. . . . You pass yourself off as a puppy in a raincoat happily running around the yard digging holes all up in the garden, only you’re laying a minefield”(3).
Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: What is the Columbo method, and how does it differ from the Socratic method?
Challenge – That is the Question: Do a search for quotations about “questions.” Select one quotation that you like, and write a paragraph explaining why you think the quotation is an important one.
1-de Botton, Alain. The Consolations of Philosophy. New York: Vintage International, 2000.
2-”The Columbo Technique.” Changing Minds.
3-Griffiths, Mark D. ”The Psychology of Columbo.” Psychology Today, 20 Feb. 2018.