08 September 2015

There’s probably someone “smarter than Einstein” in your city

Seen on Facebook today:

“12-Year-Old Girl Beats Einstein, Stephen Hawking’s score on Mensa IQ test.”

You know the expression, “Don’t get me started!”?

That got me started.

The first thing that annoyed me was that, as far as I have been able to find, neither Albert Einstein nor Stephen Hawking, ever took IQ tests.

Stephen Hawking told the New York Times:

What is your I.Q.?
I have no idea. People who boast about their I.Q. are losers.

I found some pages like this that have estimates of Einstein’s IQ. This page says flat out that he never took it. (Googling “Einstein IQ” today reveals about a zillion pages carrying this “Girl beats Einstein” story, so I may have missed this. But I doubt it.) But when you write that Neha Ramu (the 12 year old girl’s name) has an IQ “higher than Einstein,” you’re just guessing.

The second problem is that any time you take a measurement, there is measurement error (as Joel G. pointed out on Twitter). Measure your height or weight on two different days. You may not get exactly the same value (unless you use measure very coarsely; like measuring your height to the nearest foot, say). People have good days and bad. If this girl had taken a test on a different day, oops, maybe no worldwide story, she’s lower than the completely made-up and arbitrary Einstein IQ line. As Eric Mills noted, it’s hard to assess accuracy for a test when you’re a long way from the average.

This might also be a good time to point out that there are data on the stability of IQ scores over life. People can have pretty big swings over the course of their life.

If I remember correctly, IQ tests for young people are age-adjusted, so a score tells you about how a person compares to other people of the same age. It does not tell you that a kid can flat out outperform an adult.

Second, there is an underlying assumption that this girl’s score is crazy rare. So how rare is this girl’s IQ score? Well, there are different IQ tests. In most, the average is 100 points, and the standard deviation is about 15.

The reports seem to estimate Einstein and Hawking’s IQ scores at around 160: that would be 4 standard deviations about the mean. (This site puts it at 3.75 standard deviations.)

According to this site, someone with an IQ of 160 is rare: you would expect to find one such person out of 31,560 individuals. You’d need to look through 55,906 people to find someone with a score of 162.

You’d expect someone “smarter than Einstein” in pretty much any medium sized city. With seven billion people on the planet, there are probably 125,000 who are “smarter than Einstein” on a standard IQ test.

In fact, there were at least two young people in the news just last year with the “smarter than Einstein” label. One was Paulius Zabotkiene and another was Ramarni Wilfred. And the coverage is breathless. “How is that even possible?” asks one. The other advises you, “Just let that sink in for a minute.”

And all three of these young people are from the United Kingdom. This provides even further evidence that finding someone “smarter than Einstein” is hardly a once in a lifetime event with some sort of earth shattering implications. Instead, it’s a lazy journalistic trope.

But these people’s IQ scores, and how rare they are, are, of course, completely irrelevant.

Einstein’s IQ doesn’t matter. Hawking’s IQ doesn’t matter. Neha Ramu’s IQ doesn't matter. What matters is what you do with that.

We don’t value Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking because of their IQ scores. We value them for their achievements. Many people also value their other personal characteristics, which happened to be bottled up in the same body as their smarts.

We value Einstein as a humanitarian who worried about the atomic bomb and played the violin.

We admire Stephen Hawking for being someone who remained productive and accomplished in his field despite the most astonishing physical challenges.

Young people with high IQ scores will probably (though not always) do well in life. Good for them. But they are not “the chosen ones,” for crying out loud.

Additional: Sciliz noted that there is also the possibility of sexism in these sorts of stories. You know, “Einstein beat... by a girl!”

Indeed, I’ve noticed over time that a lot of these sorts of news stories often mention sex, race, class, ethnic background, hard upbringing, and so on. The overarching point of mentioning these characteristics seems to these seems to increase the surprise factor by feeding into people’s biases. “Look how smart this person is even though...!” Again, it seems to be lazy reporting and lazy writing.

Weirdly, this story seems to have first been reported months ago. No idea why it showed up in my Facebook feed today. Ramu’s age is variously reported as 12 or 13, so presumably she’s had a birthday since the story came out.

Related posts

Genius is overrated
The genius myth

External links

12 year old girl beats Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking’s record in MENSA IQ Is there anyone who has increased IQ substantially like 40 points?
IQ basics
IQ conversion
Giftedness in the long term, professor 

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