from the not-very-convincing dept
I really thought we were done writing about Walter O’Brien — the claimed “inspiration” for the TV show Scorpion. We already wrote two separate posts detailing the questionable, unbelievable or obviously false claims that he has made recently. And we did another post calling out the “professional journalists” who simply repeated his claims without any skepticism. And, once again (since this comes up every time), I have absolutely no problem with CBS making whatever TV show they want. The problem I have is with O’Brien using the obviously bogus claims to try to build a business on false premises, leading people to believe that giving him money will get you results not unlike those in the obviously farcical TV series.
In that last post, we noted that a couple of the journalists who had originally written fawning profiles had taken the concerns to heart and had tried to reach out to O’Brien to respond about the inconsistencies. Susan Karlin, at Fast Company, had written a profile about O’Brien that repeated many of the claims. When many of us raised questions, that story was briefly dropped behind an unimpeachable paywall (it said it was behind the paywall, but offered no way to pay) and then reemerged with a note acknowledging the questions raised and saying that Karlin was reaching out to O’Brien for a followup. We were skeptical that any followup would happen, but alas, late last week Karlin had a new story describing O’Brien’s weak attempts at responding to the questions about his life story.
It appears he avoided most of the really damning stuff — ridiculously claiming that “non-disclosure agreements” prevented him from discussing them. On the IQ question:
IQ: Regarding his absence from IQ lists, O’Brien wrote: ?I was about nine years old when a teacher administered my IQ test,” said O’Brien. “Unfortunately, as I was nine, I didn’t know that I needed to keep the paperwork for future reference.?
O’Brien did not respond to a follow-up question asking, since he was using his IQ as a marketing element, why he didn?t later take a Mensa-endorsed test in case that figure got challenged.
First off, this proves what we said in our last post, that all of his claims about being “the fourth smartest” are complete bunk. Elsewhere, he had admitted that it was the Stanford-Binet test he took. At age 9, in 1983, the version of the Stanford-Binet that was out was known as the L-M version (two versions ago), in which the scores were not based on standard distributions, but rather a ratio scoring system (i.e. “this score at this age, compared to a normal person at this age”). And yet, to back up his claim of being the 4th smartest, he pointed to this chart, which uses the modern Stanford Binet “standardized” scoring system to compute “rarities.” So he’s mixing his metrics. Worse, research has shown that scores on the L-M test (especially at the high end) correspond to lower scores on the current Stanford-Binet test (SB5). So, even if the test was accurate, his score would be lower. On top of that, all the test showed was that at age 9 Walter was probably much brighter than other kids his age. It means nothing about him being particularly smart today. At the very least, for someone who puts so much weight on his IQ score and claims to be so smart, you’d think maybe (just maybe) he’d actually have a working understanding of how IQ scores work.
O’Brien did clear up some of the inconsistencies about his appearance in the International Olympiad in Informatics in Argentina, showing that he absolutely did attend (he has a “participant” certificate). O’Brien completely ignored the question about why his visa application to come to the US claims he came in 6th place in that competition, when it’s clear he did not. At best there are reports that he came in 90th, though the explanation for why that 90th place doesn’t show on the website for the Olympiad doesn’t make much sense:
?The application from Ireland to compete had just missed the cut-off deadline,? said O?Brien. ?We applied for an exception and it was granted, that’s why Ireland doesn’t appear in the registry, but did compete, and I certainly was there.?
But, clearly, the website was updated after the competition to show who won, so it’s difficult to understand why they did not add his results.
O’Brien does admit to having faked the picture of the headquarters, as we pointed out, but says that the company was run virtually and he never thought people would think it was real:
Regarding the Photoshopped German building, he added, ?I apologize if the building image on the website was misleading, as it was just a cool graphic that our website designer provided years ago. To me it was clearly a made up image since it has a large scorpion tail reflected in the glass and no sky in the background, but I can see how you could think it was our headquarters.?
Regarding the bogus number of 2600 employees and the UPS Store as his address:
O?Brien said Scorpion was run virtually, to reduce overhead, utilizing approximately 2,600 pre-screened independent contractors on an as-needed basis to solve large software problems for companies, individuals, and governments. ?Most of our systems are either in the cloud (like Amazon’s) or at a large customer’s data center (like a military base), so we spend our time either at a customer site or telecommuting from our laptops,? he said. “Because we are virtual (and for security reasons), as with many companies, we use a P.O. box for our address.?
I’m all for virtual businesses running online, but there is no business in the world making over a billion dollars that can run entirely virtually without at least some semblance of a real office — and various stories have claimed that Scorpion makes over a billion dollars in revenue. You don’t run a billion dollar business out of a UPS store box. No one does. Small businesses run out of such things — which is great for them. It’s logistically impossible to run a large business that way.
The “2,600 pre-screened independent contractors” excuse is also bogus. First of all, I’m quite familiar with the expert network business, and I’ve never seen an expert network so careless as to come even close to suggesting that the network members are the equivalent of employees. But, more importantly, with every expert network, it’s very common for the members of that network to promote that they’re members on things like LinkedIn. And yet, it seems that almost none of these folks associated with Scorpion do so. It’s possible that the rolodexes of the very small number of people (it appears to be less than 10) who actually do work at Scorpion may total up to 2600 people, but that’s a very misleading way to promote the business.
Speaking of incredibly misleading ways to promote your business, O’Brien also responds to the hilarious claim that Scorpion was a venture fund with $204 billion under management:
O?Brien also stood by the $204 billion venture fund. That figure ?was true at the time,? said O?Brien. ?That statement simply referred to the total net worth of all the investors and venture capitalists that Scorpion had a relationship with and often hire Scorpion for due diligence. This is collectively referred to as a fund source as we are allowed to show these investors any new companies or inventions that we thought were worth the investors taking a closer look at.?
That’s bordering on fraud — to the point that it seems like the SEC might be interested. You don’t get to claim “because I sometimes work with these investors, I can claim to have a fund worth the value of all their assets.”
He also never bothers to explain why — if he was managing a fund with over $200 billion and building up a company with over $1 billion in revenue (out of a UPS store) and 2,600 “independent contractors” — he was still working a day job doing QA for The Capital Group.
Karlin also turns up some other lies from O’Brien that we had missed. O’Brien claimed that the following happened back in 1992:
1992 Presented A.I. discoveries, Invited to speak at the Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science conference at the University of Limerick (A.I.C.S.), by special invite from Dr. Padraig Cunningham. The youngest Scientist ever invited to present his SPEAKART project. This project was a fifth generation computer application, in the Dublin Hitachi research lab which resulted in being offered an apprentice position at HITACHI.
Karlin contacted Dr. Cunnigham and found a rather different story:
?That?s not true that I invited him to speak,? said Padraig Cunningham, now a professor in computer science at University College in Dublin, when contacted by Fast Company. ?And he wasn?t offered an apprentice position at the Hitachi Dublin lab. I?d just finished working there in September, 1992, and he was not offered a job.
?I Googled his name and found this softer version of events in a news article published on one of his sites,? he added. (It reads: ?Later that year  Dr. Padraig Cunningham of T.C.D. invited him to attend the two-day Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science Conference in Limerick University.?)
?It appears he later hardened his claims that he was invited to speak and got a position at Hitachi,? said Cunningham. ?This is a really old item, but it?s consistent with the idea that he?s become more effusive about his claims.?
This is the same thing that seems to keep coming up with O’Brien. He takes snippets of reality and extends and extends and extends those claims, embellishing the story each and every time. Being invited to attend a conference eventually turns into being invited to speak and then into getting a job.
In regards to all the other obviously bogus claims — including the ones about “catching the Boston Marathon bombers,” stopping wars, having his software misused leading to 2,600 civilian casualties in the Gulf War (yes, same number of “independent contractors” he now claims to have), stopping soldiers in Afghanistan from drinking water laced with arsenic from local drug lords… O’Brien doesn’t want to respond to any of it.
?Much of our company?s work, especially with military/government clients is subject to strict Non-Disclosure Agreements, so we can?t say more than has been cleared for news.
?I?ve answered all the questions I have time to right now,? he replied in response to follow-up questions. ?All that remains to be said is that I?m proud of and stand by my career, my company, and all the good we have done.?
It appears the strict non-disclosure agreements allow him to promote things that are extraordinarily dubious (and debunked by other information), but not to actually present any evidence to confirm. How convenient.