How do you prove an accomplished person does not have a 120+ IQ?

A reader sent me the following email:

In the article: ‘Do you need to be genius to be genius’ you said
greatness is not an exclusively property of 120+ IQ people. I think it
is. All the great people in the world have 120 or more. Even
subjective iq measurements of those among them whose IQ scores arent
known, have come out to 120 + iq…

I can think of many examples of eminent people who scored below 120 on an IQ type test:

JFK tested at 119

Bill Cosby’s SAT score equated to IQ 84 (though as a child he aced a formal IQ test)

JD Salinger scored IQ 104

Howard Stern’s SAT scores equated to IQ 115

Muhammad Ali’s army test score equated to IQ 85

Condoleeza Rice was told she wasn’t college material based on her PSAT scores (though she aced an IQ test as a toddler)

Rudy Giuliani’s 1073 SAT score likely equated to IQ 119 in his day


The problem is, any time you cite these, people immediately call the IQ score into question.  The score is dismissed because the person was tested during childhood, or the test did not measure the cognitive domains the person excels in, or the person wasn’t trying or had a learning disability preventing him from understanding the instructions etc.

In some cases these explanations are valid, but if no amount of evidence can convince you that an accomplished person doesn’t have a 120+ IQ, then  your view is unfalsifiable and thus unscientific.

There are four main reasons people think all accomplished people have 120+ IQs:

They don’t realize how high IQ 120 is

An IQ of 120+ means you’re smarter than 90% of (white) Americans your age.  A young adult who is taller than 90% of white Americans his age is 6’1″+ which is considered a very respectable height and yet an equally rare IQ is considered chopped liver.

They don’t appreciate IQ inflation

Because people  take many IQ tests that often give wildly different scores and then cherry-pick their best scores, an IQ below 120 sounds low to them.  Also, because there are so many elite colleges and high IQ societies accepting scores from so many different tests, it feels like there are so many communities with average IQs above 140, when in reality, many of these groups would regress to the 120s if given a test not used to select them.  Part of what admission tests select for is scoring higher on the admission test than you score on other intelligence tests.

They overvalue intelligence

Intelligence might be the single most important trait, but it’s dwarfed by the totality of other traits.  IQ is probably no more important to most types of success than height is to fighting ability.  On average the best boxers in the world will be well above six feet, but occasionally men of average height will dominate (i.e. Mike Tyson).  Even in fields where height is overwhelmingly important (i.e. basketball), you’ll find the occasional super-short guy (“Muggsy” Bogues), so even at the top of fields as IQ loaded as science, I’d expect a few not-smart people.

They don’t appreciate the bivariate normal distribution

Everyone knows that a super failure can have a super high IQ, but so many deny that a super achiever can have a super low IQ.  But the correlation between IQ and achievement is only meaningful if you believe in the bivariate normal distribution which means that for every high IQ person who is low on achievement, there must be a high achievement person who is low in IQ.


Of course these statistical models are just abstractions that are never perfectly observed in nature so things are not quite as symmetrical as the graph implies,  but they’re pretty good approximations.

People have no trouble accepting that height can dramatically overpredict weight and weight can dramatically overpredict height, yet when it comes to IQ and achievement, they think only the former can greatly overpredict the latter and not vice versa.



IQ vs creativity

Commenter Ben writes:

The correlation between creativity and IQ isn’t particularly strong, is it?

I’ve always been very confused about this issue.  On the one hand, when I think of intelligent people,  I think of boring geeky people with no personality, like Laurie Strode from the original Halloween movie.

And yet, when I think of intelligence itself, I think of creativity.  In fact longtime readers know that I define intelligence as the cognitive capacity for adaptive behavior; the ability to take whatever situation you’re in and turn it around to your advantage, like when Laurie creatively turned a clothes hanger into a weapon in the film’s climax.

Many psychologists would simply define intelligence as the cognitive ability to problem solve, which is a more succinct way of saying the same thing.  These same psychologists would say creativity is the ability to have ideas that are both novel and valuable.

Well if an idea is valuable, it’s solved a problem has it not?  And if it’s novel, it means you’ve solved a problem few would have solved, which means you have a high IQ, right?

IQ tests are designed to measure g (whatever variable(s) “cause” all cognitive abilities to positively correlate) and as Charles Spearman noted, the best measures of g test the “eduction of relations and correlates”.  In other words, the tests that correlate most with IQ require you to see connections between seemingly different things (like a clothes hanger and a weapon), which as Spearman noted, is the essence of creative output in science, politics, and the arts.

So why then do we draw such a distinction between IQ and creativity?  And why do high IQ people often seem so uncreative?

It’s often said that necessity is the mother of invention.  High IQ people may seem uncreative because they don’t have to solve new problems or solve problems in new ways.  Because the conventional path is so easy for them, why depart from it?

While a poor student might drop out of high school to start a business or write a novel, a high IQ person might eschew such goals as too risky, and simply stay in school and settle for a happy middle class life.

At the highest levels,  an IQ of 160 doesn’t need to invent a whole new way of doing physics because he understands the conventional formulas.  By contrast an IQ of 150 might struggle to understand the textbook and be forced to simulate the problem using concrete examples, perhaps leading to new insights and a Nobel Prize.

So while IQ and creativity are more or less the same thing,  high IQ people might be less likely to end up situations where creativity is required, thus making them achieve less creatively than they could.  Further,  if you believe Rushton’s differential K theory, a lot of high IQ people will be introverted mentally stable rule followers,  which will make them seem less creative than extroverted psychotics.

However there may be some ways in which IQ and creativity are quite different.  IQ tests measure the ability to solve problems under standardized conditions: everyone is trying to solve the same problems in the same amount of time.  But this can be quite different from how creativity works, where people solve problems they’re not even trying to solve.

For a example, someone might see a beautiful lake and suddenly feel inspired to write a poem about it.  If the poem is valued by others, it can be considered an acted of problem solving in that it filled a needed space in the arts.  But because the artist can’t just voluntarily decide to write another beautiful poem the next week (he has to wait for the next flash of inspiration), it may not qualify as an ability in the technical literature, and since intelligence is an ability, this type of creativity might be largely separate from IQ.   It would still be correlated with IQ,  because inspiration requires seeing connections,  but there’s also an involuntary non-ability component linked to psychosis (perhaps low latent inhibition) which lowers the correlation.


More thoughts on Neanderthals

Commenter pumpkinhead made an interesting comment.  I pasted it below in blockquotes, with my replies following the quotes:

I read somewhere that we inherited the genes for depression from Neanderthals. That might have had something to do with their demise. Also I formulated another hypothesis. It may seem simplistic but it looks like humans are fairly obsessed with beauty. Now I understand that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or is it? Links have been made to the golden ratio, symmetry and proportionality as the qualities that render someone more strikingly beautiful to us. In fact we seem to be obsessed with the idea of symmetry, even among intellectuals and with regard to women beauty is associated with higher fertility and good health.

Is beauty entirely cosmetic? Maybe it is or it may well have on some level and on average a link to survivability. It may tap into both brains and brawn on some level. Narrower more feminine faces in men tilt towards the perception of greater intelligence. Is this perception valid? It might be on some level, due to smaller more slender body types having to rely more heavily on brains to get by. On the flip side brawny manly looking men look like they could defend themselves and their family better but then too brawny, might I say neanderthal-like might be too much of a compromise in terms of beauty. I guess it’s about the right balance between the two on a mass population level.

Well I think humans have an aesthetic preference for tall and thin (like modern humans coming out of Africa) over short and stocky (like Neanderthals adapted to the cold).  Donald Trump wants to build the tallest buildings, not the widest.  Young children assume the tall glass contains more water than the short glass, even if the former is much narrower.  Short men often fear getting too bulky when lifting weights.

This preference may be linked to survivability in that physical size is so metabolically expensive that investing it as efficiently as possible is crucial.  Vertical size might be superior to horizontal size in that you can reach further, walk faster, jump higher, move quicker, and see further.  Horizontal size provides more raw physical strength, but with technology that became increasingly redundant.

So to get to my point, could it be that the Neanderthals died out because they were too ugly and too depressed in comparison to modern humans?

Of course evidence points towards humans basically edging them out of europe and into extinction but simply based on brain size they may well have had the cognitive tools to survive on par with humans(maybe better) but were simply unable to compete with their better looking cousins in terms of procreation.

And if, as you imply, the reason modern humans were considered better looking is because their bodies were more survivable, then they enjoyed a double evolutionary advantage: winning out both in natural selection and then in sexual selection.

Neanderthals might have had larger brains than us but their brains were less spherical, making them less efficient, since as we’ve discussed, the rounder the brain, the shorter the distance between any two points in the brain, thus maximizing efficiency.

Not only that but once modern humans entered freezing Europe, brain size expanded to Neanderthal levels, so not only were Neanderthal brains less efficient, but they were no longer any larger, and may have even been smaller after adjusting for their robust build.

Modern European brains would then shrink with the malnutrition and disease of agriculture, only to recover quite nicely in the well nourished 20th century First World, helping to bring about the Flynn effect.


21st century woman appears to have a much bigger brain than Neanderthal reconstruction, though it could be the camera angle

My other hypothesis is that humans might carry genes for ruthlessness disagreeableness and greater sociability(ie less genes on the spectrum) that might have been missing in Neanderthals therefore giving us the edge in the long run.

Yes there’s some fascinating evidence that Neanderthals had autistic traits.

How modern humans are like late blooming nerds while Neanderthals were like early blooming jocks

Imagine you have two 14 year-old 9th graders  One is a nerd, and one is a jock.  Both score at the 9th grade level in math.

Then at age 17, in their final year of high school, both are tested again.  Once again, both score at the 9th grade level in math.

Now imagine the jock dies, while the nerd survives long enough to finish his final year of high school.

In that final year of high school, the nerd is tested a third time and now scores at the PhD level in math!

The math teacher says “clearly the nerd is genetically smarter.  He went from 9th grade to PhD level in just one year, while the jock stayed stuck at 9th grade level for 3 years.”

This is very similar to the logic used to argue that modern humans are smarter than Neanderthals.  Steve Hsu writes “What Homo Sapiens accomplished in 50-100k years far outstrips Neanderthal accomplishments over a much longer period of time.”

However modern humans accomplished all this after Neanderthals went extinct, just as the nerd in my anecdote accomplished all his math progress after the jock died.  And modern humans were roughly culturally equal to Neanderthals when Neanderthals were alive, just as the nerd and jock were mathematical equals when the jock was alive.

Modern humans and Neanderthals diverged from a common ancestor at the same time, just as the nerd and the jock were born at the same time.

So why then is somehow assumed that modern humans and the nerd accomplished their achievements so much faster than Neanderthals and the jock did?

Perhaps because it’s assumed that modern humans and the nerd did not hit their biological peak until around the time Neanderthals and the jock died respectively.  So some think that modern humans were not truly modern humans until 50 kya, while Neanderthals are presumed to have been truly Neanderthals for several hundred thousand years.  So even though both species diverged at the same time, when it comes to measuring accomplishments, we start the clock when each species became its true self.

One could make the same argument for the nerd and the jock.  Even though both are the same age, the jock likely became a man (hit puberty) around 14, while the nerd did not become a man until 17.   And so even though both guys were stuck at 9th grade math from age 14 to 17,  the jock had three years of a mature brain to progress, yet stagnated, while the nerd progressed 12 years within a single year of puberty.



Social class & taxonomy

Commenter Mug of Pee writes:

in the mother country, blighty, it is possible to be poor AND upper class at the same time.

it’s RARE, but it happens.

in the US it’s even rarer. it probably doesn’t exist.

but ultimately, just like aesthetics…

class doesn’t lie.

you talk. i talk. we know…

is class just money + time?


but it seems like something CONCRETE.

when you talk to people.

Social class is indeed just money + time, or perhaps occupational status + time.

It is possible to be poor and upper-class, in the same way it’s possible to be a black person who is a British citizen.

Citizenship is to wealth and occupation as race is to social class.

In other words, you don’t just become a member of the lower class just because you lose your wealth,  your lineage must live in poverty for multiple generations to be lower class.

Similarly, you don’t just become white because you immigrated to Europe, your lineage must have lived in Europe for many generations to be white.

So ultimately, social class is a biological concept to be studied by taxonomists.

We’re all animals, but the animal kingdom can be subdivided into different classes, such as mammals and reptiles.

Mammals can be subdivided into different orders, such as primates vs rodents.

Primates can be subdivided into different families such as hominids vs Cercopithecids.

Hominids can be subdivided into different genera such as Homo vs Pan.

Homos can be subdivided into different species such as modern humans vs Neanderthals.

Modern humans can be subdivided into different races such as Caucasoids vs Negroids.

Caucasoids can be subdivided into different ethnic groups such as British vs French.

And finally, the British can be subdivided into different social classes such as Upper Class vs Prole.

Of course these subdivisions are largely arbitrary, and at the narrower levels, may be much more cultural than genetic.  Perhaps, as a commenter once hinted, the only way to objectively prove them is to do a hierarchical factor analysis of all the inherited traits of everything to ever live, but such a task is beyond anyone’s capability.


From now on, all articles are open threads, unless stated otherwise.

The other day I listened to a beautiful interview with Susan Orlean on CBC radio about libraries and all they meant to her growing up.  As a child, the primary way Orlean bonded with her mother was going to the library.

Sadly her mother would get dementia causing all those precious memories to fade.

Especially before the internet, a library stored the culture’s memories, much like the human brain stores our individual memories, so Orlean would see the tragic burning of  Los Angeles Central Library in 1986 as a metaphor for her mother’s dementia.

You can listen to the full interview here.

Open thread: Superhero fans go ballistic as Bill Maher attacks Stan Lee’s legacy

The tragic death of comic writer Stan Lee (no relation to Vernita Lee who also died this month) has been overshadowed by an unfortunate blog post by Bill Maher:

The guy who created Spider-Man and the Hulk has died, and America is in mourning. Deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess. Someone on Reddit posted, “I’m so incredibly grateful I lived in a world that included Stan Lee.” Personally, I’m grateful I lived in a world that included oxygen and trees, but to each his own. Now, I have nothing against comic books – I read them now and then when I was a kid and I was all out of Hardy Boys. But the assumption everyone had back then, both the adults and the kids, was that comics were for kids, and when you grew up you moved on to big-boy books without the pictures.

But then twenty years or so ago, something happened – adults decided they didn’t have to give up kid stuff. And so they pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature. And because America has over 4,500 colleges – which means we need more professors than we have smart people – some dumb people got to be professors by writing theses with titles like Otherness and Heterodoxy in the Silver Surfer. And now when adults are forced to do grown-up things like buy auto insurance, they call it “adulting,” and act like it’s some giant struggle.

I’m not saying we’ve necessarily gotten stupider. The average Joe is smarter in a lot of ways than he was in, say, the 1940s, when a big night out was a Three Stooges short and a Carmen Miranda musical. The problem is, we’re using our smarts on stupid stuff. I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to suggest that Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.


Superhero fans fave reacted harshly to Maher’s attack:



Open thread: RIP Miss Vernita Lee



Miss Vernita Lee (left) with he daughter Oprah

This week, the world was rocked by the tragic news that Miss Vernita Lee had passed away at the age of 83. Though best known as the mother of Oprah,  Miss Lee was a hardworking productive woman in her own right,  who added real value working as a domestic, and making people’s homes clean and beautiful.

Born in 1935, Lee grew up poor in rural Kosciusko Mississippi, where she had been raised by her mother Miss Hattie Mae who had only a few years of schooling and her father Mr. Earless Lee who had so little schooling, he could not write his own name.

Lee herself would not complete high school, finding herself an unwed teenage mother to Oprah.   Despite this adversity,  Lee took charge of her life by packing up and moving to Milwaukee in the 1950s.  She was part of the great migration of blacks going North, seeking a better life, and would later send for six-year-old Oprah, who lived with Lee (on and off) until the age of fourteen.  She had four children (though two have passed on), one of whom (Oprah) would grow up to be the World’s only black billionaire (from 2004 to 2007) and the World’s most influential woman.

Open thread: Jordan Peterson’s IQ

A reader going by the name of Aint Tellin sent me the following email:

Hello again,

I’ve been watching a number of videos by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, one of which he stated his IQ. He claimed to have had it tested at one point and that it was “in excess of 150” (although he couldn’t give an exact number). One thing struck me, however. In the same video he mentioned his GRE scores (old GRE) which he listed scoring in the 99th percentile verbally, but only 70th percentile quantitatively.

If I’m not mistaken—although I often am—this would give him a total GRE score somewhere above 1330. While impressive, this only suggests a full-scale IQ around 137. While I have no doubt he’s extremely smart, I believe he only listed his verbal IQ and not his full-scale IQ. I’d like to get your thoughts on this.

Below is a link to the aforementioned video:


When asked by a reader what his IQ is, Peterson replies “it’s less than it used to be because it declines as you age”

Actually professional IQ tests like the Wechsler are normed for age, so the average old adult and the average young adult by definition have an IQ of 100.  However Peterson’s correct that the actually number of items correctly answered (raw scores) decline after the 20s, but IQ itself is age controlled.  Maybe Peterson knows all this and is just oversimplifying for the short attention spans on youtube.

I do love what he says about physical exercise staving off cognitive decline though.  In another video he attributes this to the fact that the brain uses tons of oxygen.  Perhaps our resident health expert RR could look into this.

Moving on,  he mentions that he had his IQ tested at one point (why?, when? by who? what test?) and that it was in excess of 150.  My guess is he probably took the WAIS-R while getting his PhD in clinical psychology circa 1990, perhaps as part of the training to administer the test.  If so, the test norms were probably about 12 years old, and assuming James Flynn is right about Wechsler norms inflating at a rate of 0.3 points per year, we may need to deduct 3.6 points (meaning his IQ was in excess of 146 (U.S. norms)).

But that’s speculation on top of speculation.  Let’s turn to his GRE scores.

GRE Verbal  

He mentions that his GRE verbal was in the 99th percentile (which would be at least 2.33 standard deviations (SDs) above the GRE population if we assume their distribution was roughly normal).  Assuming he took the test circa 1984 (when he got his BA), that would have equated to a score of 778+.

We don’t know much how GRE scores equate to IQ, because GREs are normed on aspiring PhDs while IQ is normed on the general U.S. population.  One way to bridge the gap is to convert GRE scores into SAT equivalents, since in rare studies, SATs were taken by the general U.S. population.

A sample of 22,923 people took both the GRE and SAT before 1990.  In this sample, GRE verbal 778 is +2.49 SD (see chart I).


chart I

To find the verbal SAT equivalent of GRE V 778, we must ask what SAT verbal score is +2.49 with respect to this elite sample.  The answer is 780.

So how does that equate to the IQ scale? We know from a special study, that if all American 17-year-olds had taken the SAT in the 1980s, instead of just the college-bound elite, the average verbal score would have been 376 (SD = 102) (see the The Bell Curve, page 694, note 32). Since by definition, the general U.S. population has an IQ of 100 with an SD of 15, we can infer 376 = IQ 100, and 102 = 15 IQ points.

By this logic, a verbal SAT of 780+ would have equated to an IQ of 159+!

One problem with this method is that it assumes SAT scores are normally distributed at the extremes.

An alternative approach is to look at chart II which equates a GRE V and SAT V of 778+ and 780+ respectively, to IQs 149+ and 156+ respectively.


Chart II (found in the Prometheus MC Reoprt, where it was attributed to Kjeld Hvatum’s  “Letter to Ron Hoeflin” and Ron’s response, In-Genius, # 15, August 1990

Averaging all three estimates gives Peterson a verbal IQ of 155+. This would put Peterson above the one in 8000 level, compared to Americans of his era.

GRE Quant

Peterson claims to have scored in the 70th to 75th percentile on the quant section of the GRE or roughly +0.6 SD above the GRE population if the distribution was normal.  Circa 1984, this equated to a score of 624.

Now if I convert this quant score into an old SAT equivalent, the same way I did for the verbal,  I get 600.

In The Bell Curve they note that if all American 17-year-olds had taken the math SAT in the mid 1980s, the average score (IQ 100) would have been 411 and about the top 0.96% (IQ 135) would have scored 700+.  If we assume a straight line between these data points, a math score of 600 equates to IQ 123.

If so roughly one in 16 Americans of his era are at least as good at the type of math measured by the GRE.

Composite score

Since Peterson’s GRE V and GRE Q equated to old verbal and math SATs of 780+ and 600 respectively, his combined GRE (V + Q) equated to a combined old SAT score of 1380+, which equated to an IQ of about 141+ in Peterson’s day (one in 319 level).

It should be noted however that tests like the GRE and SAT do not market themselves as IQ tests and are designed to predict academic performance, not the general intelligence factor per se.  They also test a narrower and more academic range of brain functions than the Wechsler intelligence scales.