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How fake ‘celebrity geniuses’ fooled the internet

A story of Mensa, the media and Shakira.

Shakira: not necessarily a genius.
Shakira: not necessarily a genius.
Image: Matt Sayles/AP/Press Association Images

LATE LAST WEEK, you may have noticed a minor slew of news stories about celebrities with very high IQs.

Shakira was a certified-genius with an IQ of 140, we learned – as was Madonna (140), Steve Martin (142), Quentin Tarantino (160), James Woods (180) and 14-year-old Modern Family star Nolan Gould (150).

You might have found this in the Huffington Post

… the Mail Online

… countless celebrity websites like this one

… and Yahoo, which went so far as to put together a reporter-hosted video on the list. (This is just a screengrab.)

The figures were said to have been published by Mensa, the UK-based society which calls itself an “international high IQ organisation”.

But here’s the thing: Mensa published no such figures.

In a press release on June 6 – before the Mail and Yahoo stories were published – the organisation refuted all the stories, saying:

Mensa International has NOT issued a list of celebrity members recently [...] Mensa International [...] would like it to be known that it does not issue lists of Mensa members to the Press or outside Mensa, nor disclose individual IQ scores to anyone.

It added:

Attempts are being made by Mensa to discover the source of these stories and to have false claims removed.

So the stories, it seems, are all completely false. Ahem.

Strangely enough, they’re all still live. The Huffington Post is the only one to have acknowledged the (apparent) fake – with an update noting that Mensa is “denying” issuing a list, but left the headline intact and body of the piece intact.

The source for all the stories appears to be this story from June 1 on Sinembargo, a Mexican online news site. Bizarrely, Sinembargo quotes its own source as Notimex, Mexico’s official state news agency.

Beyond that, the story is hard to trace. But it’s a measure of just how easy it is get a catchy story out into the media (remember this?) – and how the story hangs around even after being retracted.

Anyway, there are probably a couple of lessons here for the outlets involved. But most of all, we’re a little sad that Shakira and Madonna aren’t certified geniuses.

At least, not as far as we know.

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About the author:

Michael Freeman

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