Blog: Thinking Small

Genius and Imitation

A week or two ago, this article was making the rounds on the parts of the internet that concern themselves with cultural bias in the academy. The big pull-quote-able sentence that everyone seems to be pull-quoting summarizes the point well: “The more a field valued giftedness, the fewer female Ph.D.s.”

A few weeks before that, back in the end of 2014, director Morten Tyldum and a host of medium-time production companies, along with a medium-A-list cadre of Brits, released The Imitation Game, an adaptation of Andrew Hodges’ biography of Alan Turing. The movie has received mixed acclaim and derision. The former has been directed primarily at Benedict Cumberbatch’s impeccable performance and the period costumes, which are tweedy and bespoke enough to make any historically-inclined hipster swoon. The latter concerns a variety of historical inaccuracies and oversimplifications about everything from its portrayal of Turing’s personality and the circumstances of his death to the central plotline of the movie, namely, the development of the bombe machines that cracked the German’s Enigma codes during WWII. The film has received eight Academy Award nominations.

Telling historical stories is a difficult task, and one that, unlike cracking the Enigma, does not have one clearly correct answer. So filmmakers who task themselves with historical adaptations always have choices to make. (Stop me if I’m saying anything surprising.) What I want to point out here is that one of the choices this movie’s crew made, which influenced many of the other historical bobbles the film made, was to steer mostly clear of explaining any of the computer science and cryptography involved in the development of the bombes. And they got away with this by playing up Turing’s giftedness to the point of near-comic absurdity.

The basic conceit, of which this movie is certainly not the sole employer, is this: the thing we are making a movie about is hard to understand, so it took a Gifted Genius to make it happen. Usually, and definitely in the case of Imitation, the Gifted Genius is tortured by how dumb the rest of the world is for not getting his (yes, almost always, his) idea. Implicit in this type of portrayal is the suggestion that the audience is not smart enough to get the idea, so the filmmakers are off the hook from trying to explain. Instead, they can focus on how hard it is to be a Gifted Genius and how unfair it is that the rest of the world is dumb. Viewers, we’re talking to you.

Now, I’m not saying cryptography and cryptanalysis are easy to comprehend. They’re not. But by painting Turing, or any other biopic-worthy Gifted Genius of science, as an impenetrable enigma (see what I did there?) whose ideas sprung, Athena-style, from the foam of his brain, filmmakers like the ones who made Imitation are playing into the exact same Myth of the Gifted that has now been shown to keep women and ethnic minorities out of Ph.D. programs. In the case of the bombes, Imitation portrayed the project as a small-scale operation made up of Turing and a handful of his cronies—including, to be fair, a Gifted Lady Genius (Keira Knightly) who plays Turing’s love non-interest. But the actual bombe operation at Bletchley employed thousands and relied on previous international insights from codebreaking, including British breakthroughs during the Spanish Civil War, Polish mathematicians, and 20th-century tech outifts, such as the British Tabulating Machine Company. (Extra credit assignment: Google Mavis Lever.)

The point is, this sort of portrayal is bad news for those of us who care about making STEM education and STEM careers accessible to people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. By making scientific breakthroughs look as if they are the innate property of Gifted Genius individuals, such portrayals are whispering into their audiences’ ears, “No, no, this isn’t for you.” If, instead, filmmakers made movies about the agonizing backs and forths, successes and failures, of the process behind scientific discoveries, they might just (gasp!) encourage viewers to get involved in making the kinds of big, world-changing discoveries that help science to change the world.

Cases in Point One and Two: BBC Films and HBO Films have quietly released two movies in the past decade whose primary goal is to explain how scientists come to the conclusions that they do. Einstein and Eddington (BBC, 2008) takes on the empirical confirmation of general relativity and in so doing, takes Einstein down a peg on his Giftedess Genius Of All Time pedestal. It shows how the fairly understandable astronomical observations that Eddington made were a necessary component of getting the scientific community to get behind relativity, and it depicts the exchange of ideas between a variety of scientists as essential to the process. Temple Grandin (HBO, 2010) is a should-be-classic biopic of the animal scientist who develops ideas about livestock psychology by making analogies to her own experiences of the world as a person with autism.

Case in Point Three: House, M.D. (Fox, 2004–2012) Now I’m not saying Dr. Gregory House is a role model for how to run a laboratory, especially with regard to his treatment of women. But the whole scientific content of the show is a series of difficult diagnoses that House and his multiracial, multi-gendered, multi-sexually-oriented team (AND HIS TEAM! AND HIS TEAM!) solve, and sometimes fail to solve, through the application of experiments, theories, inferences, and case histories. House portrays the incredible amounts of teamwork and failure that go into the discoveries made by a typical would-be, self-appointed, Gifted Genius.

Programs like these may just inspire viewers to think, “Hey, that science stuff looks like hard work, but I think I could do it.” They are the antidote to the Gifted Genius narrative, which portrays scientific discovery as a sort of Tortuga of the human mind; if you don’t already know how to get the answer, you never will. And while I’m sure I’m not the first person to point it out, I can’t resist extending a finger (index finger, team, come on) to the Cumberbatch of it all: in Benedict’s breakout role, he plays a 21st-century Sherlock Holmes, who is perhaps the most asinine fictional Gifted Genius of all time.

All of this is not to say that I didn’t cry when Imitation’s bombe machine finally cracked its first message—I did—but through my soundtrack-backed tears I couldn’t help wondering if in that moment, I was part of the problem, not part of the solution.