[ Question ]

Does scientific productivity correlate with IQ?

by Eli Tyre1 min read16th Jun 201912 comments


IQ and g-factor

Anders Ericsson, in his popular book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, claims that though one may need a reasonably high IQ to even be a scientist, after that level, IQ is irrelevant to scientific success.

The average IQ of scientists is certainly higher than the IQ of the general population, but among scientists, there is no correlation between IQ and scientific productivity. Indeed, a number of noble prize winning scientists have had IQs that would not even qualify them for Mensa, an organization who's members must have a measured IQ of at least 132, a number that put's you in the upper 2 percentile of the population.

(From chapter 8: "But What About Natural Talent", of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise)

My understanding is that this is completely wrong, and the best scientists tend to have higher IQs, at all levels of performance. But this is a background belief that I haven't concretely verified.

Is there a canonical reference regarding the impact of IQ on scientific contribution?

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Initial thought upon reading this: I would expect something like the tails coming apart to be going on here. Multiple factors impact scientific output, but once you're looking at the top scientists, IQ doesn't have *that* much power to sort them.

Your question is not well defined. Who are “best scientists”? What is “academic success”? How do you qualify “contribution”? Academia is a social institution as much as a scientific one, recognized success depends on power structures and social skills as much IQ. As far as contributions go, a relevant contribution does not necessarily require high intelligence: for example, the matrix equations used today in quantum electro-dynamics were found by someone remembering that they saw a mathematical formula somewhere that fit the experimental results. Also there is an argument in favor of method and perseverance as opposed to geniality in some fields of study. Depending on what scientific field you are looking at, how you define “best” and “success”, you can find any answer you please to this question really. For example, if you define “best” and “success” to only apply to those endeavors where high IQ is actually required, there you have your correlation.

There are a number of ways we could measure scientific success: number of citations, number of importance weighted citations, or winning of Nobel prizes.

Do Nobel prize winning scientists tend to have higher IQs than scientists in general?

This seems fair, although I think it'd be more helpful if it came with some more concrete recommendations. Are there particular metrics that you think would be appropriate for particular fields, but not for others? Or if you don't think this question would be helpful at all, maybe try to suggest a better question that you think would be more helpful?

3rpapp3yThe right question to ask depends on what you want to know. “Success”, “contribution”, “greatness” are in themselves not quantifiable. You have to change these terms into something quantifiable, that will necessarily come with a different meaning. I do not pretend that I can provide a quantifiable, universal definition for these terms that will satisfy everyone. For example, a measure of success is remuneration, so you may want to ask whether higher paid scientists have correlated higher IQ, and the answer to this would be yes (this is true to almost all occupations). But you may think that salary is not a good enough measure for scientific success, so you may want to go a different route, say, Nobel prize winners, but immediately the exclusion of the peace nobel comes to mind, as it is more political than academic in nature. So what do you want to know, really? What my line of inquiry would be, following what I understand to be the interesting question here (and you may disagree), is to: (1) limit the question to academia (2) not exclude any fields, even from humanities (3) define success by number of published papers weighted by number of citations, as a ratio, to remove length of career as a factor (4) compare IQ to average of the field, not absolute values. I believe this would yield potentially interesting results, but I doubt any such research has been done.

The task of remembering that a previously seen formula that matches the pattern of the experimental results looks to me like being about pattern-matching ability where IQ helps a great deal.

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a number of noble prize winning scientists have had IQs that would not even qualify them for Mensa, an organization who's members must have a measured IQ of at least 132, a number that put's you in the upper 2 percentile of the population.

Did he adjust for the Flynn effect?

I think the vast majority of the Flynn effect was moving the bottom up, not moving the top up, so I don't expect the Flynn effect to be super important here. Relevant quote from Wikipedia:

Some studies have found the gains of the Flynn effect to be particularly concentrated at the lower end of the distribution. Teasdale and Owen (1989), for example, found the effect primarily reduced the number of low-end scores, resulting in an increased number of moderately high scores, with no increase in very high scores.[15] In another study, two large samples of Spanish children were assessed with a 30-year gap. Comparison of the IQ distributions indicated that the mean IQ scores on the test had increased by 9.7 points (the Flynn effect), the gains were concentrated in the lower half of the distribution and negligible in the top half, and the gains gradually decreased as the IQ of the individuals increased.[16] Some studies have found a reverse Flynn effect with declining scores for those with high IQ.[17][13]

Interesting, thanks.

I don't know?

He gives three examples in the next paragraph: Richard Feynman (IQ: 126), James Watson (IQ: 124), and William Shockley (IQ: 125), all of whom are 20th century scientists. (All IQ are from Ericsson).

In the case of Feynman, I just don't believe that his IQ was only 126.

I remembered gwern talking about this and found this comment on the subject: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1159719

I remember seeing a thread on Less Wrong that started with someone hearing that Feynman had an IQ of 115, and being surprised, and then asking what's up with that.

I can find the thread, now, but I remember mostly people saying that that number was false, and offering various explanations for why one might think that was Feynman's IQ, including that the test in question was from his teen-aged years, and IQ often stabilizes later in life.

In any case, Feynman was named a Putnam Fellow (top five scorer) in 1939, which gives some context on his general mathematical ability (aside from being a ground-breaking, noble prize-winning, theoretical physicist).