Did you know there are more people with genius IQs living in China than there are people of any kind living in the United States?
I came by this astonishing bit of trivia a few months ago when I attended a preview screening of “The Social Network,” the mostly nonfictional account of the origins of Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.
The observation about the number of geniuses in China is an aside the Zuckerberg character, played by Jesse Eisenberg, shares with his girlfriend in the film’s opening scene.
It is, in fact, the first line in the movie, which may explain both why it became lodged in my normally porous memory and why I repeated it, in the week after I saw “Social Network,” to at least a dozen friends and acquaintances.
I’d probably still be repeating it today but for the fact that one of those friends, a thoughtful physician named Joe, took the time to point out that Zuckerberg’s assertion could not possibly be true.
“Why not? I asked.
“Think about it,” Joe said.
“A genius, by definition, is someone whose IQ is in the top 2 percent of the population. So how many people live in China? A billion, maybe?”
With unnecessary precision I said, “1.4 billion,” because I had a pretty good idea Joe was about to expose me as a total cretin, and the population of China was one of the few facts I was still pretty sure about.
“OK, 1.4 billion,” Joe said agreeably. “So 2 percent of that is — what? — about 28 million people?”
“OK,” I said, knowing better than to challenge Joe’s math.
“And there are a lot more than 28 million people living in the United States, right?” he continued.
“About 308 million,” I said, relieved to have yet another population figure up my sleeve but starting to feel thoroughly cowed by Joe’s superior erudition.
“So the idea that there are more geniuses in China than people in the United States is kind of silly, yes?” he ventured.
“I hope,” I said, “that none of the people I’ve mentioned that little factoid to has repeated it to anyone else.”
It takes a village idiot
I relate this story only to point out that one needn’t be a deceitful, Obama-hating Republican to traffic in so-called facts that turn out, upon somewhat closer examination, to be patently untrue.
You just have to be a little bit stupid, as I was in asserting a clever line I heard in a movie as the gospel truth.
So we should not be too quick to leap to the conclusion that U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a tea party doyenne from Minnesota, knew she was telling a colossal lie when she asserted on CNN earlier this month that President Barack Obama’s 10-day diplomatic tour of the United States would cost his government more than $200 million a day.
After all, as CNN’s Anderson Cooper discovered when he decided to track Bachmann’s spurious assertion to its source, the $200-million-a-day figure was the same one an unnamed provincial official from the Indian state of Maharashtra had cited in an Indian news media account a few days earlier. Who was Bachman to question it — especially after the notoriously meticulous Matt Drudge repeated it on his bottom-feeding Web site?
And why would disinformation specialists such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and conservative radio host Michael Savage hesitate to disseminate the juicy $200-million-a-day story after a respected Republican congresswoman had endorsed it? (Although it seems to have been Beck alone who added the even less credible detail that Obama’s Asian entourage would be shadowed by 34 U.S. warships.)
Had Bachmann and company been more skeptical, they might have run into a few facts that counseled a sober re-examination of their cost estimates, such as the fact that the entire war effort in Afghanistan costs only $190 million a day, and that similar presidential trips whose cost has been documented to the penny had cost about 1/40th of the price tag they asserted for Obama’s trip.
They might also have learned that 34 warships amounted to about 10 percent of the U.S. Navy, and considered the unlikelihood that such a force would be diverted to protect a president traveling by air.
But that doesn’t make them liars. It simply earns them a secure place among the millions of Americans who are not exactly geniuses when it comes to separating fact and fiction.
Contact Brian Dickerson at 313-222-6584 or email@example.com.