In his latest New York Times op-ed column, David Brooks, the conservative liberals can most stomach, attempts to tackle the problem of “what makes a genius”. This is, of course, the kind of reasonable length topic that one can explain in a single newspaper column (it’s the New York Times, you now.) The article begins, like all great op-ed, with a strawman that would make Dorothy proud:
Some people live in romantic ages. They tend to believe that genius is the product of a divine spark. They believe that there have been, throughout the ages, certain paragons of greatness — Dante, Mozart, Einstein — whose talents far exceeded normal comprehension, who had an other-worldly access to transcendent truth, and who are best approached with reverential awe.
Having properly stuffed his straw man, Brooks then lights it afire with his main thesis:
The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess.Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.
This is, of course, a miraculous discovery, worthy of a true genius! Did you know that you can identify geniuses by the use of a two dimensional plot and circling those in the upper right hand corner? I had no idea.
Increasingly I find myself running flat into this argument. Take property P of some data set. Notice that quality Q correlates with P in such a way that there is a threshold value of Q below which data elements do not give you P, but where higher Q leads to a higher chance of P. Conclude that Q cannot be the only explanation for P. Search mind for other quality QQ different from Q. Notice that quality QQ correlates with P in such a way that there is a threshold value of QQ below which data elements do not give you P, but where higher QQ leads to a higher chance of P. Conclude that having qualities Q and QQ lead to P. I call this “argument by half-spaces.” Just keep dividing your space by half-space equations and your sure to capture your prey. But why the users of this argument feel that it is sufficient to stop at two or three half spaces is a mystery to me.
And, seriously, is Brooks really so dense to believe what separates out geniuses is this extra degree of practice? Or is he just worried that he needs to separate himself out from the rest of the high IQ crowd?