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.

Comments

  1. #1 becca
    June 25, 2009

    A#1- even if geniuses do not “fail” out, they may “opt” out. Until rich, white, heteronormative males are actually welcoming to geniuses that do not fit these categories, you will have some attrition of brilliant people that is most likely worth paying attention to. (nothing in your post contradicts this, but it seems worth articulating explicitly)

    B#2- step one of solving a scientific problem: analyze factors that could confound your analysis.
    The system worked for you. That does not mean the system is fair or well-designed. If success in academic science depends on *both* intelligence *and* conscientiousness, well that implies must be clever and hardworking! Don’t you therefore have a vested interest in thinking these qualities are required for success?

    Huge bias problem in anecdotal data #29027: If someone is an “underachiever” and they’ve felt it necessary to tell you their IQ they are much, much more likely to be “cocky dilettantes who aren’t nearly as brilliant as they think they are” than the people who are underachievers, but don’t brag about their IQ because they are cautious of advertising themselves as lazy or lacking in focus. I think this is just a particular case of the general principle “IQ != EQ”

    My own philosophical problem with your argument: I don’t believe people are lazy. Not when they are interested.
    At least as a general rule, young children, before socialization about what is “hard” and what is “work” and convoluted systems of bribes and punishments (e.g. most schools), are not lazy when they are interested. They may lack focus, but I’m not convinced that the deep understanding of someone who is by nature very focused is superior to the broad understanding of someone who is by nature interested in the relationships between many things. The former style may be more advantageous in academic science than the later, but both types of knowledge are important.

    I’ve seen ample examples of people making excuses for students who are “really smart but find school boring”- it is annoying. Perhaps it is particularly annoying to those of us who like to see ourselves as really smart and respectably diligent. But that annoyingness doesn’t change the fact that schools really *can* be boring. Educational systems do need reform.

  2. #2 Laelaps
    June 25, 2009

    “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.”

    I can only speak for myself here, but there is no drudgery like intro classes. Put me in a small, high level class on a specific subject and I do fine, but it’s the overcrowded, dull intro classes that always get me. Yes, I have been lazy while taking them, but they are also incredibly dull and are taught from the perspective of “Well, everyone just has to do it, so let’s get this over with.” (Maybe it’s different elsewhere, but at a large university like I attended, there is no hell like a 100-level intro course in a large lecture hall.)

    I think Becca hit on my main problem with this post, and I’ll just quote her here: “The system worked for you. That does not mean the system is fair or well-designed. If success in academic science depends on *both* intelligence *and* conscientiousness, well that implies [you] must be clever and hardworking! Don’t you therefore have a vested interest in thinking these qualities are required for success?”

  3. #3 Mike
    June 25, 2009

    The system has lots of boredom, points where you seem to be doing the same thing repeatedly for no real gain, areas where you don’t really feel like you have the foggiest idea what you’re doing.

    I’ll be blunt – if the system never threw that at you, you’re going to be stuck when reality does. And as an experimental scientist, reality throws that lot at me repeatedly.

  4. #4 NJ
    June 25, 2009

    Until rich, white, heteronormative males are actually welcoming to geniuses you will have some attrition of brilliant people that is most likely worth paying attention to. (nothing in your post contradicts this, but it seems worth articulating explicitly).

    And the square of the length of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the lengths of the other two sides for a right triangle. (Nothing in the post contradicts this, but it is equally off-topic and therefore seems to be worth articulating explicitly).

  5. #5 abb3w
    June 25, 2009

    Chad Orzel: The problem with this is that the number of actual geniuses who wash out of academic science is very, very small.

    I would also note that being a genius in one area (such as mathematics) does not preclude being a flake in many other areas of life. Being a genius usually means you will be able to survive, regardless, but perhaps not prosper.

    becca: If someone is an “underachiever” and they’ve felt it necessary to tell you their IQ they are much, much more likely to be “cocky dilettantes who aren’t nearly as brilliant as they think they are”

    From my experience, if someone tells you their IQ, regardless of underachiever or not they are much more likely to be a cocky dilettante.

    becca: I think this is just a particular case of the general principle “IQ != EQ”

    Agreed.

    becca: My own philosophical problem with your argument: I don’t believe people are lazy. Not when they are interested.

    I believe that part of this is current K-12 education doesn’t do a very good job of teaching gifties how to get through the dull parts.

  6. #6 Mark P
    June 25, 2009

    I don’t care how smart you are, if you don’t work at it, you won’t finish it. I went to graduate school with some very smart people, so smart that they were even smarter than I think I am. One in particular could run rings around me in just about any subject. But I got my PhD and he didn’t. Why? He just couldn’t work at it and finish it.

    Yes, intro classes can be boring. But so damn what? Do them and get them out of the way so you can go on to the more interesting courses.

    I’ll bet if there were a draft like when I was in school, it would be a lot easier to concentrate on school.

  7. #7 Michael Day
    June 25, 2009

    quote on the wall in my lab in graduate school–placed there by the PI:

    “I’ll take a “5” with “10” attitude over a “10” with a “5” attitude any day”

  8. #8 Susan B.
    June 25, 2009

    My own pet theory about scientific and mathematical “creativity” is that it has less to do with some genius ability to see far beyond everyone else, and more to do with a) asking interesting questions, and b) taking your box of tools and continually applying them to every problem you come across.

    Also, you certainly CAN be lazy even when you’re interested and motivated. I have that problem, which has done some serious damage to my academic career.

  9. #9 becca
    June 25, 2009

    I believe that part of this is current K-12 education doesn’t do a very good job of teaching gifties how to get through the dull parts.
    They dealt with my mom by skipping her a grade. My dad got sent to the library and finished the entire contents by second grade. By the time I went through the system, they yelled at me for reading too much. I had a fantastic enrichment program 2 days a month, and for the other 28ish days I couldn’t drag myself out of bed (I guess I was a lazy 7 year old). I’m not sure the solution isn’t to minimize the dull parts.

    Mark P.- the PhD definitely requires persistence. For some more than others, but in no case that I’ve seen is it optional.
    Today, I believe the persistence is required because it’s so important for the science itself (disclaimer- this is perhaps in part because today I got an experiment to work on the 12th try; on days when the science doesn’t behave it’s tempting to think I just lack aptitude).

    Mike- as an experimental scientist, I emphatically agree that reality can throw a lot of frustrations at you.
    At the same time, as a graduate student who is post-comps, I think I can honestly say this is the first time I don’t spend any significant amount of time bored or doing busywork. But this was the first level of formal education for which that statement is true. I like to believe that it’s substantially true for a lot of people in academic science careers.
    To the degree it can be taught (and not just modeled), perseverance is an important goal for our educational system. But there’s no need to teach it in such a perverse way (e.g. telling students *not* to read)- more exposure to real research earlier in the formal education sequence is a far better solution. It’ll help you identify some of those that are suited for academic science far better than either IQ tests OR tolerance for the arbitrary hoop jumping so prevalent in our educational system.

  10. #10 cm
    June 25, 2009

    Laelaps et al.: I didn’t find Intro classes boring at all! I find them very enjoyable if it is a subject I am coming to cold. I would love to take a good Intro to Economics course, for example (having never taken any such class), and I don’t care if there are 10 other students or 400. What matters to me is learning interesting content.

    I agree with Chad heartily regarding the skin-crawling produced when considering favoring underachievers. Part of that is, like Chad, I doubt that most underachievers are really as brilliant as they are evaluated to be. I have seen this in my teaching, too. Almost all the brilliant students seem to just do the work, on time and well. The underachievers are just geniuses at making excuses.

  11. #11 Mag
    June 25, 2009

    I have not been coaching students for very long yet. In fact, I have had exactly three masters students, and two turned to a catastrophe. The first one had been recommended by multiple teachers, but he couldn’t be bothered reading the instructions for the master’s thesis, or turning up in the lab or even at scheduled meetings. He might have been bright, I don’t know, but because of all the previous the work he turned in was mediocre at best. The second one was more willing, but he had an idea during the year about a subject he clearly knew little about, did not read the papers I gave him about because he “knew”, and supporting your work by relevant quotes (or checking that what you think is indeed so) is something other people do. He ended up trying to blame me for “stifling his creativity”. Again, the thesis was a disaster. I had to collect the data again after both of them left because none of their datasets could be trusted…
    Now, I have a student who is a bit more cautious about what he writes, and doesn’t propose wild new theories every day, but I know his data, hypotheses and tests are sound, when they are brought to me. I think he will make a much better researcher than the other two (except if they change radically), because what he produces can be relied on, and as he is getting more self assured everyday, we are slowly getting to him developing new and original things… But my boss is asking me if I am really sure he is good enough (my boss wanted to keep the previous one).
    I think that the myth of the lone genius has done a lot of bad in science. We want bright people to come and work there, but if what they produce cannot be trusted and must be checked all over again, they do more harm than good…

  12. #12 Chad Orzel
    June 25, 2009

    A#1- even if geniuses do not “fail” out, they may “opt” out. Until rich, white, heteronormative males are actually welcoming to geniuses that do not fit these categories, you will have some attrition of brilliant people that is most likely worth paying attention to. (nothing in your post contradicts this, but it seems worth articulating explicitly)

    While this is certainly a problem, it’s a problem for a different set of people than I’m talking about here. The “I have an IQ of 178 but am too bored with your problem sets to turn in homework” argument is almost exclusively used by white males from reasonable well-off backgrounds. And it’s all too often followed by some complaint about non-white non-male peasants taking something the person in question feels entitled to.

    Huge bias problem in anecdotal data #29027: If someone is an “underachiever” and they’ve felt it necessary to tell you their IQ they are much, much more likely to be “cocky dilettantes who aren’t nearly as brilliant as they think they are” than the people who are underachievers, but don’t brag about their IQ because they are cautious of advertising themselves as lazy or lacking in focus. I think this is just a particular case of the general principle “IQ != EQ”

    That’s probably true. I don’t have (nor am I interested in) comprehensive IQ data on my students. For that matter, I could well be overestimating the IQ of the apparent underachievers, who might actually be about-right-achievers.

  13. #13 JD
    June 25, 2009

    I don’t teach science. I teach English, and my experience has been the following. The students who complain most about being bored tend to be extremely passive learners. Rather than find a way to become interested in the subject matter, they often just sit and complain about how dull it is.

    My perspective is that all interests are learned. NOTHING is interesting by nature. As a student, especially a college student, one needs to learn how to become interested in a subject: one does this not by distincing one’s self from it, by refusing to become involved, but by paying close attention to it. In every subject, there is some thread that one can cling to that will make it interesting. The ability to find and cling to such threads is one characteristic of geniuses.

    Unfortunately, many students are convinced that they have no responsiblitiy to do this. They seem to believe that the responsibility for learning falls only on the instructor’s shoulders instead of acknowledging that they need to actively participate in their own learning. The sad thing about this refusual to become involved in their own learning is that it often leads bright students to drop out of college, or, which can be worse, to stay in college while earning barely adequate grades.

    By the way, a very fine essay that focuses on this issue and others, is by Robert Leamnson. It is called “Learning (Your First Job),” and it is available online for free. For its length, it is the best statement of how to be an effective college student that I know of.

  14. #14 Kate W.
    June 25, 2009

    I think lots of people are over impressed with their own brilliance. The people who had the hardest time settling in to college (and life) where the ones who always complained about the uselessness and unfairness of some requirement that they didn’t like.

    Almost any job requires some level of less interesting stuff like writing up the results in the proper format, completing paperwork for various things, and general seemingly arbitrary junk. People who can’t do this, no matter who brilliant they are tend to make bad employees.

    There is a reason that “almost” having a degree is not worth as much as actually having a degree. Especially at the undergraduate level, it’s not about the specific class that provides the value but the ability to exist in a system and follow all the rules needed to finish. It is finishing school more than the actual content of the last term of classes that is valued.

    Now I will say that sometimes being conscientious can be confused with actual interest and talent. It seemed to disapear after high school, but through high school, I could get good grades in stuff I wasn’t especially interested in or good at doing because so much of it was process and following directions. It’s not shocking that math got hard once simply following instructions didn’t really cut it any more.

  15. #15 onymous
    June 25, 2009

    This attitude was pretty pervasive at my high school, though I didn’t encounter it much in college or grad school. There was a lot of “I can’t be bothered to spend hours on these long problem sets, I was busy writing a new mp3 encoder”-type posturing (it was a science magnet school), to which the right response was “hours? since I actually understand the homework, it only took 15 minutes.” (OK, in retrospect, we were all arrogant pricks, I suppose.)

  16. #16 MattXIV
    June 25, 2009

    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.

    While I agree that this is generally true when looking at people’s undergrad performance as a whole, I don’t think it applies across the board. K-12 was legitimately mind-numbing for me and the only reason I put in the effort to get good grades was to gain access to a better selection of college programs so I could make my undergrad years more interesting. There are still some cases where undergrads do have a legit gripe about boring assignments, but they seem to largely be in cases where the college does a poor job of assessing the prior knowledge level of the student. I had to take a beginner C programming class that was mind-numbing, but it was mind numbing because I had been programming C for 3 years at that point but I was required to take the class to graduate. The core course requirements often seemed to be based on the assumption that the only place you can learn anything is a classroom. When you run into things like that, it’s hard not to make the assumption that academia cares more about you jumping through the hoops than your abilities. However, if by the time you’re choosing most of your courses you can’t find stuff that you feel is worth the effort, it’s likely a personal problem.

    I never reached underachiever status (must be one of those high C people), but there were lots of times where I would have blown off boring course work if it wouldn’t have ended up looking bad on my transcript. Of course, what kept me going was an appreciation of how important it is to look good on paper, so maybe the C of interest here is Cynicism.

  17. #17 Q
    June 25, 2009

    I’m pretty skeptical that you could actually fail out of college if you were really smart unless you didn’t show up for tests. I routinely skipped multiple prereqs in a row, didn’t show up for class, and I passed, because I understood the material. If I didn’t do homework, I still passed because I did well on the tests (not always with a good grade…. stupid homework requirements) If you are actually smart, you’ll survive. I’ve even not done a final paper worth 30% of my grade in a gened class and still passed, so the argument that it is “easy” to fail out just seems like nonsense. On the other hand, there is an argument farther up the thread about graduate school. I’m proud to say that I have no intention of going to graduate school. After having taken graduate classes (in undergrad) to learn what I wanted to learn, I have no interests in jumping through the hoops required to actually get to the point where I am allowed to do research when there are plenty of companies where I will be treated with more respect, paid much better, and be allowed to do research without a 2 or 3 year lag time while passing silly quals and other mandatory classes. I’m quite sure I’m not the only one who finds that the stuff that has to be done to be allowed to do research completely not worth it.

  18. #18 Michael I
    June 26, 2009

    Susan B@8

    certainly CAN be lazy even when you’re interested and motivated

    Brought to mind Scalzi’s note (in a June 18 posting) that he’s sometimes been delayed in getting paid for his work because he kept putting off mailing the necessary form.

  19. #19 Bruce G Charlton
    June 26, 2009

    It is not really about how hard people work when they are undergraduates.

    The key point is that a few decades ago an average scientist would start working on the problem of his choice in his mid- to late-twenties – now it is more likely to be early forties or never.

    In the UK most people got a ‘tenured’ university lectureship straight after their PhD (or before) – created a lot of ‘dead wood’ but also gave people time and security to be ambitious.

    Longer time spent as a doctoral student plus an extra added delay of six, ten, maybe fifteen years; spent doing short chunks of post-docs and temporary fellowships, here and there under supervision of various other people.

    It is the lengethening of the training, the _delay_ until middle age that is the killer for a really creative person. Some creative people will not do it and leave science for fields when they can make a mark quicker and while still young (journalism, advertising, finance etc), others try to stay the course but drop out.

    Science is then populated whoever is left-over after these creative people opted out or dropped out. These left overs are all (by definition) capable of years of drudgery and lengthy deferral of independence, and cannot see why everyone else should not be like them…

  20. #20 Zak
    June 26, 2009

    “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistance.
    Talent will not; there is nothing more common than unsuccessful men with talent.
    Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
    Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.
    Persistance and determination are only omnipotent.”

    –Calvin Coolidge

  21. #21 TooMuchCoffeeMan
    June 26, 2009

    I haven’t had time to mull over BGC’s original post/essay, nor all the comments above. But when in #19 BGC says

    Some creative people will not do it and leave science for fields when they can make a mark quicker and while still young (journalism, advertising, finance etc), others try to stay the course but drop out.

    Science is then populated whoever is left-over after these creative people opted out or dropped out. These left overs are all (by definition) capable of years of drudgery and lengthy deferral of independence

    how is this anything more than bald assertion? and how are we measuring creativity? My own experience through the PhD and postdocs has been that a large number of people stay the course because of ambition and love for the subject. There used to be such a thing as craftsmanship, rather than this need to “get creative” – and I find the fetishization of the latter quite frankly off-putting. I might be more convinced if any of the creatives had anything like as much creativity/imagination as they thought…

    Of course, BGC is welcome to write me off as yet another instance of self-selecting bias. Though I’d recommend the short discussions at the end of Gowers’ Short Introduction to Mathematics, which can hardly be said to have been written by a hack who’s thrived in a system that breeds hacks.

  22. #22 Comrade PhysioProf
    June 27, 2009

    I question the entire notion that supposed “geniuses” make scientific progress move any more quickly, and that thus “geniuses” should be identified and given special privileges. Science is a profession just like any other, and the great advances are made by diligent and observant people who happen to be in the right place at the right time.

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