Team Science and the Creative Genius

10 January 2015 at 1:26 pm 1 comment

| Peter Klein |

Turing1_jpg_600x639_q85We’ve addressed the widely held, but largely mistaken, view of creative artists and entrepreneurs as auteurs, isolated and misunderstood, fighting the establishment and bucking the conventional wisdom. In the more typical case, the creative genius is part of a collaborative team and takes full advantage of the division of labor. After all, is our ability to cooperate through voluntary exchange, in line with comparative advantage, that distinguishes us from the animals.

Christian Caryl’s New Yorker review of The Imitation Game makes a similar point about Alan Turing. The film’s portrayal of Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) “conforms to the familiar stereotype of the otherworldly nerd: he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t even understand an invitation to lunch. This places him at odds not only with the other codebreakers in his unit, but also, equally predictably, positions him as a natural rebel.” In fact, Turing was funny and could be quite charming, and got along well with his colleagues and supervisors.

As Caryl points out, these distortions

point to a much broader and deeply regrettable pattern. [Director] Tyldum and [writer] Moore are determined to suggest maximum dramatic tension between their tragic outsider and a blinkered society. (“You will never understand the importance of what I am creating here,” [Turing] wails when Denniston’s minions try to destroy his machine.) But this not only fatally miscasts Turing as a character—it also completely destroys any coherent telling of what he and his colleagues were trying to do.

In reality, Turing was an entirely willing participant in a collective enterprise that featured a host of other outstanding intellects who happily coexisted to extraordinary effect. The actual Denniston, for example, was an experienced cryptanalyst and was among those who, in 1939, debriefed the three Polish experts who had already spent years figuring out how to attack the Enigma, the state-of-the-art cipher machine the German military used for virtually all of their communications. It was their work that provided the template for the machines Turing would later create to revolutionize the British signals intelligence effort. So Turing and his colleagues were encouraged in their work by a military leadership that actually had a pretty sound understanding of cryptological principles and operational security. . . .

The movie version, in short, represents a bizarre departure from the historical record. In fact, Bletchley Park—and not only Turing’s legendary Hut 8—was doing productive work from the very beginning of the war. Within a few years its motley assortment of codebreakers, linguists, stenographers, and communications experts were operating on a near-industrial scale. By the end of the war there were some 9,000 people working on the project, processing thousands of intercepts per day.

The rebel outsider makes for good storytelling, but in most human endeavors, including science, art, and entrepreneurship, it is well-organized groups, not auteurs, who make the biggest breakthroughs.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Business/Economic History, Entrepreneurship, Myths and Realities.

Top Posts of 2014 Henry G. Manne (1928-2015)

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. David Hoopes  |  20 January 2015 at 5:23 pm

    Thanks for the warning. Turing’s story is so compelling. I saw a documentary about the Brit code-breakers a while back. It included Turing’s tragic end, but it never mentioned him being hard to work with or a loose canon.

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