I watched the second episode of the new CBS TV show “Scorpion” last night, and was, to put it mildly, underwhelmed. (This isn’t exactly a science fiction topic, and it isn’t exactly a critique of the science in the show, but what the hey… Call it part of the “and more” byline.) I’m not going to discuss the problems which the show’s credibility has had, or the ridiculousness of the plot of episode 1, or the hubris associated with naming the central character after one of the executive producers. There’s enough to bug me about the show without worrying about any of that. (Pun intended, even though I know scorpions are arachnids.)
The show’s premise is that a team of four geniuses go around solving crises relayed to them by their Homeland Security mentor. I can’t remember the names of the characters, nor do I care enough to look them up, so I’ll refer to them by the traits which (in lieu of personality) are used to define them: there is the handsome one (call him “Face”) who is the computer specialist, who supposedly hacked into NASA computers at age 13 and has an IQ of 197; the awkward, shy, mathematically gifted one who has an eidetic memory and counts real well; the token female nerd, who is mechanically gifted; and the con man/psychologist (who, given his personality, no one in their right mind would trust for even an instant). There is also the waitress who is the token normal person, who is Face’s love interest-to-be, and her supposed genius son, who is mostly silent and exists for Face to bond with so he can score points with Mom.
As someone who is not a genius but who has some nerd cred anyhow, the show rings entirely false. The producers rang up central casting and asked for four genius stereotypes without giving much thought to what genius (or, frankly any sort of technical or scientific ability) is really like. The important point when discussing genius is to remember Edison’s adage that it is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. For example, in the first episode, it is casually revealed that sonny-boy is playing chess with Math Nerd and beating him, despite M-N being a grandmaster. (They’re playing chess with various condiment bottles on a diner counter without a board.) Anyone who knows anything about serious chess playing realizes that this is ridiculous. Chess grandmasters aren’t born – they’re made. They all spend ridiculous amounts of time studying chess openings, endgames, chess strategy and the like. Bobby Fischer is kind of the ur-example of this: he had enormous innate talent, yes, but also spent most of his free time improving it by playing other talented people and studying, studying, studying! The idea that a random child, no matter how intrinsicly gifted, will beat a grandmaster just with pure talent, is pretty ridiculous. (The idea that M-N is a grandmaster is also pretty hard to believe, as he doesn’t seem to be spending most of his time studying chess either, but we’ll let that pass.)
Then, of course, there is the issue of IQ itself. In the opening credits, Face states that he has an IQ of 197, whereas Einstein’s was 160-something. I’m not sure Einstein ever had his IQ measured, but that’s beside the point. IQ isn’t a measure of intrinsic intelligence (whatver that is anyhow.) This is the MENSA fallacy, that a) the ability to score well on an IQ test means that one is intelligent, and b) that pure intelligence means anything anyhow. Back to Edison again: great people are defined by their actions, not by their potential. What Einstein did with his “meager” IQ was much more important than whatever Face is doing with his humungous one.
There are other bothersome things, of course. M-N supposedly has a photographic memory, and is able to memorize several pages of people taking part in a drug trial under very stressful circumstances. Photographic memory doesn’t really work this way: it takes time to memorize things like this, and most people who can do this have trained their mind using “memory palace” techniques. (These have been showcased on TV recently, in BBC’s Sherlock.) Once again, perspiration rather than innate ability is mostly how this works. The team caught their criminal by blatantly illegal methods, searching an office without a warrant, jurisdiction or vestige of probable cause. Finally, as a young boy, Face is shown in his classroom disputing his teacher over the divisibility by four of several numbers on the board. He (the kid) maintains that all numbers are divisible by four if you include remainders, and that the teacher simply hasn’t defined his terms well enough. As a teacher, I cringed when I saw that: the kid is merely being a know-it-all jerk. The math teacher is clearly using the expression “divisible by four” as a shorthand of saying “divisible by four with remainder zero”: this is one of the standard accepted uses of the term, and young Face is clearly wrong. (And where did his Irish accent go as an adult?) I’m not saying he should get his fingers hit with a ruler for saying this, but he’s not exactly a genius for trying to score a shallow and incorrect point off an authority figure.
I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. The writers don’t have much idea of how very bright people really interact with the world or with one another. Or of what genius really means. (Or trigonometry. Or legal procedure. Or…) I’ve met geniuses, and you, Face, are no genius.