Who is the “smartest” person in the world? (And are they even in the academy?)

Who is the smartest person in the world?

Naturally there are many different opinions on the matter. According to the Huffington Post, one of these twelve people are up for strong consideration for the title, including (no surprise) legendary astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and (quite surprising) actor James Woods.

Yes, THAT James Woods. Who knew?

If you look closer at the measures of intelligence for each of these brilliant people, they are typically measured by 1 of 3 things:

(1) IQ Score (all across the board)
The Intelligence Quotient score of an individual is perhaps the most popular quantitative means of measuring one’s intelligence, in spite of its history of controversy based on the variables of race, gender, genetics, class (perhaps the only convincing indicator among the four), and so forth.

(2) Child Prodigy / Wünderkind
By noting that this genius is a prodigy whose talents are largely cultivated by their natural disposition, an unspoken “God-given” mystique about the child genius is understood by all. However, often these children end up having abnormal emotional or social developments and tend to be severely lacking in “emotional intelligence,” defined as  the “ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.”

One notable person who might have had a “high IQ, low EQ” problem was Apple co-founder and chairman Steve Jobs, known for both his brilliance in fast-forwarding the “PC revolution” but also his tendency to be impulsively abrasive to his peers, a characteristic that got him kicked out of Apple for ten years.

Here’s a link to a comic from Zen Pencils that illustrates the point well.

(3) Rare / Impressive Accomplishments (multiple publications, immense wealth, great SAT scores, knighthood, chess mastery, intelligence Olympiads, Emmy and Oscar awards, etc.)

Now we’re getting into a lot of different modes of accomplishments with even more exceptions to the rule. I will simply ask this: “Is it possible to accomplish any or all of these things without being labelled a ‘genius?'” You’re probably going to say “Well … yes.” Moving on.

Nowhere on this list (or any list, for that matter) is “earning a PhD” considered a certification of one’s genius – in fact, it’s a pre-requisite for doing more impressive work later on. Some of these geniuses are college dropouts who felt that the academy was just unable to keep up with their own ambitions (side note: some of the most successful people in the country never finished their bachelor’s degree, e.g. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs,  Frank Lloyd Wright, James Cameron, Mark Zuckerberg, Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, Lady Gaga, Tiger Woods, and so on.)

Of course, we’re not suggesting that everyone should drop out of college… as for finishing their PhD, however, that’s a different story that we’ve covered in previous posts, especially this one.

At least certain PhD recipients get recognition beyond their respective intellectual communities: those who partake in the “hard sciences” vis-à-vis the “soft sciences.” Among relatively more well-informed “nerd” circles, these names come to mind (all of whom are featured in this lovely YouTube music video, auto-tuned for your pleasure and listed in alphabetical order):

  • Jacob Bronoski – Mathematician, Biologist, Poet
  • Richard Dawkins – Biologist, Ethologist
  • Richard Feynmann – Quantum Physicist
  • Brain Greene – Theoretical Physicist
  • Stephen Hawking – Theoretical Physicist
  • Lawrence Krauss – Theoretical Physicist
  • PZ Myers – Biologist
  • Carolyn Porco – Planetary Scientist
  • Carl Sagan – Astronomer, Astrophysicist
  • Jill Tarter – Astronomer
  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson – Astrophysicist

Notice a trend: three biologists, six physicists of varying sub-specialties, eight astronomically oriented scholars, and one “poet.”

What exactly is the point I’m trying to make? Perhaps a fictional genius on television can say it better than I can:

Here we have  Sheldon Cooper, M.A., Ph.D., Sc. D – expressing the sentiment of perhaps the great majority of academia –  those who partake in the “hard sciences” (e.g. physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, astronomy) are simply “smarter” than those who partake in the “soft sciences” (e.g. psychology, sociology, political science, anthropology, economics, etc.), and they at least have a presumably scientific approach to their inquiry into the world, unlike those smarmy folks in the humanities (e.g. languages, literature, ethnic studies, history, art, etc.) who might be even resistant to the mere notion of science itself!

In other words, is the field of choice alone determinant of how smart you are? Granted, it’s probably more of a hunch over how wise you are since certain majors guarantee more career stability than others. Personally, I came from the field of cultural anthropology, which overlapped with both the interests of the social sciences and the humanities. My greatest challenge was not understanding the material or learning how to read, write, and analyze as the highest level. It was constantly defending my field of choice itself to other people – not only dismissal scholars in other departments, but quotidian people who pitied me for the terrible life choice I had made… including my father.

Therefore, who are the smartest people in the world? There’s no precise way to measure it anymore. Now that 64,000 new PhDs enter the job market and 50,000 fake PhDs are given out every year, the concept of the “expert” is under assault, much less the concept of the “genius.” There’s no perfect measurement to respond to this question, especially as one moves further and further away from the academy.

Technically, the woman inside the egg is a “genius.”

For the rest of you foolishly hard-working academics who likely chose the wrong field to study and wonder what exactly went wrong in the last five-to-seven years, don’t despair. Even though you’ve earned your PhD and the world still seems to think you’re an idiot, you’ll always have this:

“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”
-The Daily Affirmation’s Stuart Smalley

Keep your ear to the grindstone,
Lee Ngo
Co-Founder | Academica

Next probably blog topic: How bad is it for women in academia?
(Answer: pretty bad…)