Masterpieces in Hindsight – Why I.Q. is Irrelevant

Contagion (2011) - IMDb

So a lot of people have already talked about Contagion recently, because of the obvious.

If you have not seen it, you owe it to yourself to see it now in light of circumstances concerning the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s no question that Steven Soderbergh, and the crew of the film, did their research. What would a viral outbreak look like in the 21st century? The likelihood of China being the beginning of the outbreak was high, given the mix of global supply chains and handling of animals in wet markets. But what was even more surreal was the particular brand of anti-democratic covering up of patient zero, effectively kidnapping a WHO representative until a vaccine was found. To have something similar happen in some form or other with our own pandemic highlights a worrying reality that seems obvious from the outside. If the current developments with the Uighur people in China are any indication, it seems despite modernization, the country continues its very long and arduous history disposing with individual rights.

That is a post for another time, after I have done the proper research on it.

For now, let’s focus on the strangeness of context. Can we talk about Contagion in a different way than others have?

The Movie

Roger Ebert gave the movie three out of four stars. If you go read his review, it is an amazing artifact of history. Here’s one paragraph critiquing the movie:

One aspect of the film is befuddling. Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is a popular blogger with conspiracy theories about the government’s ties with drug companies. His concerns are ominous but unfocused. Does he think drug companies encourage viruses? The blogger subplot doesn’t interact clearly with the main story lines and functions mostly as an alarming but vague distraction.

It isn’t so befuddling now is it?

So fascinating that Ebert’s criticism of the film becomes one of the fundamental problems with our time, that of the ambiguity between scientific information, and the resultant actualization of that knowledge in the greater public. People in Contagion continue, even in the last act of the film, to wander the streets without proper PPE. Ebert’s failure in understanding the friction between Jude Law as a blogger and the greater medical industry is in assuming that his unreason has to…well…have a good reason. “His concerns are ominous but unfocused” is exactly the point of conspiracy theories. Often the truth, especially in scientific fields, is quite boring to most.

That is largely the critique I had with the film at the end of the movie: that it lacked a more human element. With plots in the CDC, WHO, suburban Chicago, suburban Minneapolis, Hong Kong, research laboratories researching a cure, a private office researching the virus, it was miles wide and skin deep. I had hoped for a more focused attention to the “human element,” which in a way makes me no better than Jude Law’s pronouncement.

It is exactly the desire for a face to the movie that is the problem. That is the thing that keeps me unable to understand movements like Effective Altruism and just how many people die from malaria due to lack of proper mosquito netting. The more I want it to be a movie, the less it ties to reality.

The Takeaway

I’m going to shift hard here and talk about I.Q.

The reason seeing Contagion in hindsight is so eerie is because of how prescient the movie is in today’s context. Seeing all the words like social distancing, washing hands, wearing masks, contact tracing, is a testament to just how well we understood a pandemic before it even happened. In that context, Contagion becomes a weird sort of masterpiece in hindsight.

So it goes with people’s I.Q.

I will be frank. I consider I.Q. to be largely a waste of time. That is because it is a small sliver to what the totality of a person is. Not only that, but even if you found a cohort with a large I.Q., that is only one group of skilled people at a particular range of abstract skills, and they must still live and interact with the world around them. That includes people of “lower” I.Q.

Richard Feynman - Wikipedia

Let’s take someone who undoubtedly had an incredibly high I.Q., like my hero Richard Feynman.

Feynman could have painted instead. Or he could have kept playing the drums in strip clubs for years and died lonely.

He could have died of malaria instead.

But rather than all that, he beat the odds and earned the Nobel Prize for Quantum Electro Dynamics.

It seemed that Feynman was born to the right parents, lived in the right atmosphere, and was given the right tools, not only by the Atomic Energy Commission, but also by universities like Stanford, in order to produce good work. It was in Feynman’s context that he became a masterpiece.

For a while, he was just a kid who repaired radios around town.

The reason I.Q. doesn’t work is because we have no idea how it matters for the next person who walks into our life.

Finland is the best educated nation in the world because they understand the conflict, and so they decided to lift all boats, in the hope that there is a Richard Feynman in some way in each child.

They do this by offering not just a robust system for the core content, but also for extracurriculars. As many of the teachers in documentaries like that of Michael Moore claim, Finnish children are given the time to be children.


Why do we create a world where math and science success is recognized immediately, whereas the humanities can only find out postmortem?

Success takes time to fully parse out, yet the ingredients for success are doled out in real time, in piecemeal, each day in a child’s life.

And sometimes, as was the case with Contagion, the success turned out to be luck on a global scale.

The idea that I.Q. is the best determinant of who we should give finite resources to is now over.

Instead of creating new economic systems that encourage wide inequality, we should be asking ourselves: how do we take new technologies and give our next generations every chance we can to succeed?

It is not going to be with I.Q. It will not be with stratification.

We need to take luck out of the equation.

Even now, colleges and universities are beginning their plans for the fall. Scott Galloway continues to rail against the behemoth poised to make our higher education the next hotspots for the virus, seemingly out of fear that they have no other choice.

Many of our next generation may take a gap year, or may never go at all.

Meanwhile we have the obvious problems of K-12 coming a couple weeks after that, something the Contagion movie also remarks on for six seconds.

Coronavirus is poised to widen the disparities, in education especially. What are we going to do to address our student’s needs?

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