Geniuses Don’t Fail Out

Over at Skulls in the Stars, gg has a very good response to the polemic about the dullness of modern science that I talked about a few days ago. He takes issue with the claim that modern science is “dull” compared to some past Golden Age, and does a good job of it– go read it.

I think he makes some very good points, but my own main problem with the piece is a different sort of thing. Fundamentally, the article strikes me as a “Fans are slans” argument dressed up ina lot of science-y jargon. And “fans are slans” arguments drive me nuts.

The basic argument is laid out in a comment by Bruce Charlton, the author of the original article:

Of course the best scientists need to work hard and be meticulous – but to work at the subject which interests them most in the whole world – i.e. their own work, their chosen problem. To work very hard at something which *fascinates* you does _not_ require very high Conscientiousness.

Indeed, if a scientist is very highly Conscientious, they are more likely to work on something which does not fascinate them; and therefore to do mediocre science.

In a way, the only-moderate conscientiousness of creative scientists ensures that they work only on subjects which fascinate them.

The claim is, in essence, that modern scientific training involves so much drudgery that brilliant and creative people do poorly in classes and so on, because they’re bored. These people then wash out of academic science, leaving behind dullards who are fine with boredom.

The problem with this is that the number of actual geniuses who wash out of academic science is very, very small. The number of people who think they are geniuses who wash out of academic science is much, much higher. In fact, I would say that the “actual genius” fraction of the washout population is essentially zero.

This is in part the fault of scientists– we promote (or at least don’t do much to stop) the myth of great scientists as geniuses who transcend the ordinary drudgery of academia. Which makes a lovely story for geeks to tell themselves to make themselves feel better, but is generally a bunch of crap. Einstein didn’t fail math in school, and all the rest.

I haven’t been in academia all that long, but I’ve seen a number of students who were convinced that they were brilliant, creative people who were too cool for school. They didn’t do classwork because they found it boring, and assumed that they could just use their innate brilliance to ace the tests without coming to class or doing homework. Hell, I’ve been that student.

I’ve seen a lot of people who thought that regular work was too boring to be worthwhile, and every single one of them– myself included– was wrong. Oh, they may have gotten away with it for a while, in the intro classes, but it always caught up to them later on.

There is no shortcut to understanding. Sure, there are people who don’t need to do much in specific classes in college, or even graduate school, but that’s almost always because they’ve put in the work beforehand, either in previous classes, or because they found the subject fascinating enough to do the work on their own, earlier on.

Charlton suggests that we could identify the “creative” types that we need to make science less “dull” by comparing IQ tests to exam scores:

The object of this exercise in comparing exam results with IQ tests is to enable revolutionary science educational or research institutions to select under-achievers in preference to over-achievers. If, for example, a person is in the top 2% of the population for IQ but the exam results are only in the top 20%, then it is plausible that the relatively weak exam performance happened because the subject is relatively lower in C[onscientiousness] (although still above average). This is under-achievement.

[…]The opposite situation – ‘over-performers’ – are those who have significantly higher ranked exam results than IQ test results. The interpretation is that over-performers are higher in C lower and lower in IQ (harder working but less intelligent).

I’ve known a bunch of these “underachievers,” and the idea of giving them preference in admissions and hiring makes my skin crawl. Almost without fail, those people are cocky dilettantes who aren’t nearly as brilliant as they think they are.

I haven’t had any students who I think are really likely to become revolutionary geniuses in the near future, but the smartest and most creative students I have worked with have not been “underachievers” in Charlton’s sense of the term. Quite the contrary– either they waltzed through the “boring” drudgery in the curriculum without expending any significant effort (certainly not enough to be turned off from the subject), or they were conscientious to the point of being obsessive.

“He’s really smart, but finds school boring” is something that you hear people say a lot about “underachieving” students who have bad grades but great IQ test scores. And when you hear that, it’s almost always the sound of somebody lying to themselves. They’re not bored, they’re lazy and undisciplined. People who are really that smart and that creative find some way to motivate themselves, and do well enough even at the “boring” bits to get through.