A popular talent show in China has stirred up heated online debate after a mentally challenged participant’s demonstration of superb arithmetic ability elicited doubts.
Zhou Wei, an intellectually disabled participant on Jiangsu Satellite TV’s reality talent show The Strongest Brain, dazzled the nation last Saturday when he was asked to calculate a 14th root of a sixteen-digit number and gave the correct answer using mental arithmetic within just one minute.
The heavyweight show, which aims to find and showcase the disguised intellectual talents of the grassroots community, dubbed Zhou the “Chinese Rain Man” after the Oscar-winning film starring Dustin Hoffman as an autistic savant. The show instantly created a buzz on China’s online community, with many online users apparently amazed by his extraordinary maths skills.
However, some sceptics emerged online to say they were unconvinced about the supposed talent Zhou demonstrated on stage. They suspected he had used memorisation and some memory techniques to arrive at the answer instead of going through the entire calculating process in his head.
They pointed out that the 14th root of any 16-digit number could only fall between 11 and 13. Even if he included an answer to the first decimal point there would just be 22 different possibilities. So as long as the challenge was limited to calculating the 14th root of 16-digit number, it would not be remotely difficult for any ordinary man if he could master the short-cut technique to come up with the right answer.
Various similar explanations attempting to unravel the “secrets” behind Zhou’s excellent calculation ability were also circulated online. Among them the most prominent sceptic was Fang Zhouzi, a renowned popular science writer who is known for his relentless efforts in seeking to expose pseudoscience as well as academic fraud.
He dug out an episode of CCTV’s popular science show Approaching Science that reported Zhou’s story that had been aired back in 2009. After conducting a series of mathematics tests, several education experts in the show concluded that Zhou’s special talent in mental arithmetic was nothing beyond any well-known techniques. They added he had also showed a weakness in understanding questions and was unable to solve graphics and application-related questions.
Fang, whose nickname was “fraud-buster”, then alleged on his microblog that Zhou had been playing a “deceptive trick” on TV show. “Certainly someone has instructed him to do this,” he said.
Wei Kunlin, a deputy professor of Beijing University and the judge of The Strongest Brain, rejected the accusations made against Zhou.
Responding to an interview on guokr.com, Wei said Zhou’s brain scan results showed he did not use memorisation to carry out the high-digit number calculations on stage. He also urged others not to harass Zhou and his family.
“I hope the show can bring a positive change to Zhou’s life. But it seems it has now gone out of our control,” he wrote on his Sina Weibo.
The majority of the commentators online also appeared to be sympathetic towards Zhou despite his critics.
“It is truly upset to see some of the malicious verbal attacks … I hope there are more people with a sunny personality,” one online user said in a tone supportive of Zhou.
The 19-year-old young man’s mother and older sister who accompanied him to the show said he was diagnosed with mental disability in his childhood and has been constantly treated with discrimination in his life ever since. However he had slowly revealed a special talent in excellent mental arithmetic ability later in life, his family members said on stage.
Many were touched by his past experience of facing discrimination. Several of China’s largest social networking websites were quickly filled with outpourings of encouraging comments and blessings.
“This has taught us to never underestimate or discriminate against a mentally challenged person,” one comment read on the nation’s largest microblog service Sina Weibo.
“God has already closed a door to him, so we would like to open a window, even if this is just a trick,” another comment read on news portal qq.com.