Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: Walter O’Brien has the fourth-highest IQ ever recorded.
Television shows and motion pictures very often base their characters on real life people or situations. For instance, the film In and Out was based on Tom Hanks’ acceptance speech for when he won the Best Actor Oscar for Philadelphia. In fact, the practice is so common that people often mistakenly presume certain TV characters were based on notable people (for example, Barack Obama is often erroneously credited as the inspiration for Matt Santos on The West Wing). In the case of CBS’ hit series Scorpion (which recently completed its first season), however, they do more than simply base their show on the life of Walter O’Brien, they flat out made the show about Walter O’Brien.
At the opening of every episode, there is first a credit on the screen that says “Inspired by the life of Walter O’Brien.” Actor Elyes Gabel (who plays O’Brien on the series) then narrates an introduction to the show:
My name is Walter O’Brien. I have the fourth highest IQ ever recorded, 197. Einstein’s was 160. When I was eleven the FBI arrested me for hacking NASA to get their blueprints for my bedroom wall. Now I run a team of geniuses tackling worldwide threats only we can solve.
He then details the various members of his team, as well as their assistant, a former waitress who helps them interact with “regular” people in exchange for them helping her raise her highly antisocial genius son. Reader Fran G. wrote in to ask if the real life Walter O’Brien fit the description of the fictional Walter O’Brien. Read on to find out!
First off, let me note that the fictional Walter O’Brien on Scorpion can be whatever they feel like making him be. They can invent whatever feat that they want for him to have. He can be a mortgage broker. He can sell car insurance. It doesn’t matter. The only issue that some people have with this particular series is that the fictional Walter O’Brien is essentially working as a weekly advertisement for the actual Walter O’Brien. The show effectively makes O’Brien a “brand,” and if they do so while making false claims, well, that can be seen as a bit annoying and I imagine that’s why Fran wrote in to me about the show.
Intelligence Quotient tests work in terms of deviations from the mean, which is 100. The standard deviation is 15 points either way. So someone with an IQ of 115 is one standard deviation better from the raw mean. Someone with with an IQ of 85 is one standard deviation worse than the raw mean. 160 is four standard deviations away from 100 and is therefore considered to be generally the highest one can score on the test (someone with an IQ of 160 would be in the 99.997th percentile of people). In fact, Einstein never actually took an IQ test. He is just given a 160 as a basic estimation of his abilities. So O’Brien’s claim that he has a 197 IQ test is quite remarkable. But can he actually back it up?
When asked about the claim (which he continues to maintain on his company website) by the website Fast Company, O’Brien explained “I was about nine years old when a teacher administered my IQ test. Unfortunately, as I was nine, I didn’t know that I needed to keep the paperwork for future reference.” He wouldn’t answer a follow-up question of “why, since he was using his IQ as a marketing element, he didn’t later take a Mensa-endorsed test in case that figure got challenged.” Note that IQ tests tend to follow pretty closely despite your age. To wit, if you have a 130 IQ as a nine-year-old you’ll typically have a 130 IQ as a 20-year-old and as a 40-year-old and so on and so forth.
So right off the bat, the fact that we only have O’Brien’s word that he has one of the highest recorded IQs ever is pretty fishy (heck, since we don’t have any paperwork to show it, is it even “recorded”?).
Next, when challenged about it while doing a reddit “Ask Me Anything,” O’Brien conceded that he does not actually know for sure if he has the fourth-highest recorded IQ, but instead noted:
There are no official records for IQ just as there are no official records for the forbes billionaire list (there are over 1000 billionaires not listed because the reporter cannot find them easily).
The Guinness Book of World Records retired the “Highest IQ” category in 1990 after concluding IQ tests were too unreliable to designate a single record holder I took the Stanford-Binet and my position statistical position can be seen using http://www.iqcomparisonsite.com/iqtable.aspx Where 197 = 1/1,486,736,899 rarity then divide that by the world population
Again, very quickly, you can’t just do math like that to prove that point. It really does not work out to say “The odds of my score occurring are one in 1.5 billion, so therefore in a world with six billion people I must be fourth then.” That doesn’t make any real sense. While not a precise analogy, it is sort of like trying to get a loan and looking at your credit score and saying, “My score is in the 90% percentile, therefore 10% of the world’s population is how many people have the same credit score as me.” It doesn’t work like that.
However, beyond that logic leap, here is an even bigger problem with what O’Brien stated there. He took the Stanford-Binet test when he was 9 years old. That would be 1984, at which point the Stanford-Binet test used at the time was the third edition, developed by Maud Merrill. However, the chart he linked to in that reddit piece is based on the current Stanford-Binet test, which has a completely different system than the past Stanford-Binet test. In fact, studies show that high scores on the third edition (referred to as the L-M version of the test) correlate to lower scores on the modern Stanford-Binet test (referred to as SB5). In this piece, you can find a chart which essentially says that a L-M score (the test O’Brien took) of 145 is equivalent to roughly a 122-133 on the current SB5 test, the test whose ratios O’Brien used in that reddit AMA to show that his score was the fourth highest in the world.
So let’s put it all together….
1. There is no written proof that he has the score he says he has
2. He won’t re-take the test to prove it
3. His reasoning for calling himself the fourth-highest is flawed at best
4. He took an old test where high scores would be lower on the modern tests
So I think it is pretty safe to say that Walter O’Brien does not have the fourth-highest IQ ever. I’d be willing to bet that he doesn’t even have a 197 IQ, but I guess I can’t say for absolute certain there.
Mike Masnick at TechDirt did an amazing job exploring all the other various claims O’Brien has made, so be sure to check them out here and then the follow-up article here. The second Masnick article is what I’m mostly relying on for this piece.
Anyhow, as to the legend, I’m going with…
Thanks to Fran G. for the suggestion!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com.