Science in Media: Eureka’s Strange Ideas About Intelligence

It’s been a while since I’ve watched Eureka, a sci-fi series about a community of mad scientists, but I found a few notes I’d made about the show and never posted, so this might be a good time to address some of the weird misconceptions. Note that I did really like this show while I was watching it, and it wasn’t the technical stuff that threw me out of the story (because sci-fi) but rather the ideas about how being a scientist or an intellectual in general worked.

I’ve used Eureka as a springboard to talk about popular misconceptions about science and scientists in the past. Only Agents of SHIELD rivals it for its ability to inspire rants about science in the media. Past posts have been on IQ, interdisciplinary knowledge, and multiple PhDs.

What I want to talk about in this post is how this show (and to be honest, society at large) has some odd ideas about how intelligence (as we understand it) works. One episode, “Smarter Carter”, is a good example. Here, the non-scientist character Carter drinks a cup of coffee drugged with something that makes him much more intelligent. Then he reads and memorizes two advanced books on a topic (without knowing anything about the basics) suddenly makes him more of an expert than the experts. Right…

Borrowed from quotlr.com

Two points:

1. There’s a difference between intelligence and knowledge that this episode apparently doesn’t understand. Being learned isn’t the same as being good at thinking or vice versa. The drug presumably made him smarter, which may affect his natural intelligence, but should leave his body of knowledge (and vocabulary) exactly as is. That shouldn’t make him useful in scientific discourse, because he hasn’t had time to learn anything. I imagine there wouldn’t be that much readily noticeable difference in him right away–he’d probably just have more questions than before. It’s like giving him a weapon he’s never held before and has no idea how to wield.

Of course, it might not make any difference at all, for all I know. We can teach people to think critically and apply logic. Does that mean that intelligence isn’t entirely fixed? In that case, the drug may have to affect his curiosity, which gives him the motivation to wonder which kinds of questions to ask and how to approach them, to get a noticeable effect. And even that might not be true, because perhaps he’s already curious, but about completely different things than we’d expect him to be for us to codify him as “intelligent.” I’m going to stop there before I go on a philosophical tangent about what intelligence actually means.

Either way, no matter how intelligent the coffee made him, you don’t pull this stuff out of nowhere. You still have to have certain knowledge available to you to make deductions based on that knowledge.

2. The information that you’re going to get in two advanced books on a scientific topic will be a) confusing to someone who doesn’t have the foundation to understand them, no matter how smart, b) still a very, very small subset of the knowledge in the field, and c) not the most current or detailed information on the topic. Books don’t keep up with cutting edge research in real time. You’ll find way more current information in journal articles. And even that won’t necessarily be the most current information, because scientists go to conferences on their topics where they discuss their as yet unpublished data.

So, not only would Carter be unable to understand the unfamiliar jargon and mechanisms of the advanced books, but he would still be way behind on his knowledge compared to anyone who’d been actively involved in the field for any amount of time. Science very much necessitates keeping up-to-date on new information.

Borrowed from wordpress.com

He shouldn’t know as much as he does unless the drug somehow magically inserted the sum of human knowledge into his brain. Which makes way less sense, and also wouldn’t make him more capable of thinking and interpreting. It would just make him a walking encyclopedia. And here’s the thing. We don’t need people to be encyclopedias. That’s what we have encyclopedias for. We need people to be able to put together, interpret, and critique information.

And yet, here’s Carter, coming up with ideas that surprise scientists who are experts in their fields. Science is work, guys. I get that it’s appealing to think that it just requires genius and natural talent to do it, but at its heart, it’s work. No one magically knows everything. You have to learn not just a basic body of knowledge, but to think creatively and critically. To apply logic, which can be pretty contrary to our natural human instincts. To ask questions, then figure out how to answer them. These are all skills that have to be developed. That’s a lot of hard work (and even harder the less good teaching/mentoring you have along the way). There’s a reason for the recent hashtag on Twitter called #FailinginSTEM.

Several thoughts can be taken from this. One is that education doesn’t equal intelligence. There are plenty of people with a lot of knowledge and a poor idea of how to use it. And there are plenty of people with little opportunity to access the body of knowledge available in universities, who are nonetheless very intelligent. Sometimes in ways we don’t know how to recognize. Sometimes using language we haven’t coded as “smart”. That doesn’t diminish the actual thought behind it, only our ability to perceive it.

Another is, if you’re interested in science, it isn’t an on/off switch of you know it or you don’t. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get it right away. Most people don’t. Learning to do things like reading scientific papers is supposed to be hard, which is why it’s normal for students to reread one several times. Sometimes before and after they do experiments that clarify the process more for them. Honestly, the best way to get into science and figure out if it’s for you or not is to get into a lab as soon as possible.

And maybe the third one is to pay more attention to thought process than the ability to recite a list of facts. Or perhaps a more general notion of doing our best to keep our expectations from clouding our interpretation of reality. Which, I know, easier said than done. And that’s kind of the purpose behind writing up things like this, for me. Because we need to be discussing things. All things. We can love the stories we love while still accepting that they might get certain things wrong, and that it’s okay and even healthy to open up a dialogue about how that relates to reality. Or about how it relates differently to different people’s realities.

And on that note, feel free to add to the discussion in any way. I’ve only got one perspective to draw off of, after all.

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4 Responses to Science in Media: Eureka’s Strange Ideas About Intelligence

  1. theo promes says:

    haven’t watched Eureka, but your thoughts about intelligence are interesting, and from my personal background, I quite agree with what you’re writing about science.

    The best definition of intelligence I’ve come across so far is from a goal-oriented point of view, where intelligence can be expressed as optimization power divided by resources. Vague, as far as definitions go, but it works well enough to give people like me a rule of thumb to toss around in the head. It is derived from a very practical standpoint, optimization power could be called “the ability to shape ones surroundings to one’s will”, and resources being the scaling factor because its obviously easier to exercise influence if backed by more money/time/people/whatever fits.
    You kind of touch the same idea when you say “It’s like giving him a weapon he’s never held before and has no idea how to wield.” using a weapon, the very manifest of physical power, as a simile for intelligence.

    It is by no means an all-encompassing definition or even practically applicable in any way, but it works significantly better than all other ways of “measuring” I’ve found, especially ‘standards’ of any kind, be they IQ or PhD (no offense intended, not trying to say a PhD is not an achievement, but it does not work as a measure of intelligence other than being a non-exclusive baseline…to some extent).

    Anyways, this got a bit philosophical, but it’s a quite interesting topic and opportunities to discuss this are somewhat rare.

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    • No offense taken–there is no single achievement that a person has to have in order to be considered intelligent, regardless of what kind of intelligence we’re talking about. A PhD is more of a product of the work you put into it than a measure of something innate, and its certainly not the only kind of training a person can have to get to a certain point or even one that’s right for everyone who goes through it. I try not to be elitist about the degree I don’t even have yet. And anyway, I’m in the position to see what the training doesn’t provide, and the range of people who who have it. That tends to take some of the luster off.

      IQ tests, I don’t even take seriously–that’s just a way for people to feel good/bad about themselves without actually doing anything to earn either. A PhD at least requires a tangible contribution to the discourse in the field.

      I like it when things get philosophical, but most people usually try to stop me. A vague definition of intelligence might be best, I think. We use it in a way that tends to focus on one type or idea of intelligence, and that tends to emphasize certain ways of thinking as inherently superior–this bothers me, because we need the diversity of thought, not for everyone to think in the same way.

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      • theo promes says:

        A vague definition leaves more leeway for variety, I agree – reminds me of that cartoon, I think its pretty well-known, where a bunch of animals including a fish, an elephant, a dog and a monkey are tasked to complete the same, “fair” test: climbing a tree.

        On the other hand, the same vagueness leads to misconceptions like those you criticize in your post, where good memory or a high level of knowledge on a complicated subject become interchangeable with high intellect. By that logic, wikipedia’s servers would be the most intelligent thing on the planet – but throw them and a dog into a shallow lake, and they get outsmarted by the dog. Thats where the optimization power definiton works – separating narrow and broad intelligence, to borrow a term from AI research, and allowing some kind of classification while still being vague enough to encompass all sorts of things from instinct to abstract reasoning.

        On the interpersonal side, I often catch myself trying to engage in friendly banter with new acquaintances, because while opinions on political and philosophical topics can be parroted from other sources to seem intelligent (for some time), nothing like a bit of verbal sparring to quickly find out if someone is going to be interesting to talk to. Sure, its not quite fair, but has served me well on a few occasions…

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      • I’m not entirely sure that it’s vagueness that leads to people conflating memorization skills with intelligence. Might have more to do with the education system and an emphasis on standardized tests. Might also have to do with what a person sounds like, talking in-depth about a subject they know well to someone with no knowledge of it.

        I love how I’m discussing intelligence with a clear idea of what I mean while freely admitting that I’m not entirely sure what it is.

        When I meet people, I usually try not to go too in-depth on anything, but I’m also not going to lie or drastically over-simply anything that comes up. So it generally tends to come out that I’m not following a script of acceptable things to say, which can lead to…interesting reactions, sometimes. Of both the good and bad variety.

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