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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"20 Smartest People to Ever Exist"

The internet seems to be full of various lists ("click bait") these days. Some attract our attention and we peruse them; most disappoint, for various reasons. Yesterday I stumbled across a particularly annoying list: 20 Smartest People to Ever Exist.

It's a relatively arbitrary list of people, supposedly ranked by IQ. Half of the people are obvious candidates (like Da Vinci and Galileo). But half have never accomplished anything significant, and are merely on the list because of their purported IQ's.

The problem with that is, IQ tests are not standardized the way the SAT's are. There are several prominent IQ tests: the Wechsler, the Stanford-Binet, the Woodcock-Johnson, the Kaufman, etc. And while all are calibrated to average 100 (for the white population), it's harder to score ridiculously high numbers on some than on others.

On top of that, most IQ tests are age-adjusted, so it's far easier for someone to score extremely high when he's 8 or 10 than when he's 20. Was he just naturally smarter when he was younger? Of course not.

(I know a guy who scored 210 as a child; he claims that if he took the test now he'd score no higher than a 130 or 140. He's being modest -- I'm sure he'd still score north of 150 -- but he's right insofar as he couldn't possibly score a 210 again.)

Not only is there no standardization of IQ tests, there's also no way to verify the scores. There is no IQ equivalent of the Educational Testing Service which keeps your official score, which was obtained under strictly supervised conditions, in some central repository to be sent out to various entities on a need to know basis.

And, newsflash, people often lie. This is how Sharon Stone gets included in various lists of "geniuses" -- because she claimed to be one.

Also, there are plenty of people on the list who lived long before IQ tests even existed, yet they have a number assigned to them. Who assigned their numbers? The author of the article, "R. J. Farrah" of Rene Descartes certainly seems a likely candidate for the list, but who decided his IQ was 177? That's an awfully exact number for a guy who never took the test. Why not 170, or 180?

Is Benjamin Netanyahu, ranked #18, really one of the twenty smartest people ever to have lived? He is a genuine badass (as a battle-hardened member of the Israeli Army Special Forces), and he is by all accounts a forceful politician. But the 18th smartest man who ever lived?

One of the most ridiculous entries is the actor James Woods, at #16. I guess I must not have appreciated how intelligent someone has to be to be fed lines to utter. Woods has an IQ of 180 attributed to him. (I can't help but wonder if he volunteered that number himself.)

Woods' inclusion is particularly interesting in light of some of the people who did not make the cut, like Charles Darwin, Euclid, Aristotle, Plato, Nikola Tesla, Max Planck, Archimedes, Michelangelo, Copernicus, Socrates, and Stephen Hawking.

One has to wonder: is author R. J. Farrah immune to embarrassment?

Checking in at #13 is Marilyn Vos Savant, who, as best I can tell, is another person famous for advertising her IQ. She is described as an American magazine columnist, author, lecturer, and playwright. She is listed with (or more likely, gives) an IQ of 186.

I had been wondering if the author would feel obliged to practice a little affirmative action. She did: #10 is Philip Emeagwali, a Nigerian computer engineer. Check out that Wikipedia link and decide for yourself if he is truly one of the ten smartest men to have ever lived. He is assigned an IQ of 190.

Rick Rosner weighs in at #8. Strangely, he ranks ahead of #9, Isaac Newton, even though Newton is assigned an IQ of 192 and Rosner only 190. Rosner, in case you're wondering, is the screenwriter who gave us "CHiPs." (Remember that TV show from the 1970's, which starred Erik Estrada?) Granted, comparing Rosner to Newton is apples to oranges: after all, Newton might not have been able to come up with "CHiPs" any more than Rosner would have been able to lay the foundation for calculus.

A better comparison might be with William Shakespeare, who did not make the list at all.

Da Vinci, Von Goethe, Liebnitz, John Stuart Mill, Galileo and Descartes all make the list, although Einstein rates only an honorable mention with his assigned number of 160. But I hadn't even heard of any of the top three, all of whom seem to be included because they had been child prodigies.

Number three is Christopher Hirata, a physics professor, given credit for a 225. He is the youngest American ever to win the gold medal at the International Physics Olympiad, and he entered Cal Tech at age 14.

Number two is Terence Tao, a professor of mathematics at UCLA. He is one of only two children to have scored over 700 on the math SAT while only 8 years old (he scored 760). At age 10, he was the youngest person ever to compete in the International math Olympiad. He got his Bachelor's and Master's degrees from Flinders University at age 16. Tao is assigned a 230.

And #1 is William James Sidis, another child prodigy, who lived from 1898 to 1944. He entered Harvard at age 11. But if you click on that link, you'll see many of the claims about his intelligence, such as his ability to speak forty different languages, were evidently lies. It seems somehow appropriate that this list is topped by an apparent fake. Sidis is assigned an IQ of 275, which evidently puts him 45 points ahead of the second smartest man ever to have existed.

A score like that is about as credible as a score of 2750 on the SAT's: the IQ scales simply don't run that high.

Hearing about these child prodigies who entered college as such tender ages is sort of a trip down memory lane. People simply don't seem to do that anymore. These days ambitious parents do the opposite, and hold their children back, so they can become "leaders."

I was curious about the compiler of this list, R. J. Farrah, so I Googled her, and came across this page, which lists her articles for But the name listed in the subject bar at the top is "Roxanne Foster."

As long as we're guesstimating IQ's, I'll assign Roxanne a 90, just based on this moronic list she assembled.

But, I'm willing to revise that upward to 95, since at least she was smart enough not to publish it under her own name.


jova said...

these self reported IQs often do not pass the smell test.

Sharon Stone attended Edinboro University near Erie Pennsylvania. If she had 154 IQ it seems she would have had good grades, high SAT scores and attended a higher ranked college.

but I suppose it is possible she scored high an IQ test when she was a child. My Mother told me I scored 140 on an IQ test given at my grade school when I was 10 or 11. I did get a scholarship to a private High School when I scored at the 99% level on their entrance exam at age 12. But I estimate my IQ was no higher than 130 when I was in college, as I scored just 1220 on the SAT in 1986 and 1250 when I took it again at age 17.

John Craig said...

Jova --
I doubt Stone ever scored that number. She also claimed to have attended a MENSA school for specially gifted children, and the fact is, those schools didn't even exist when she was in school.

Yes, it's time for the age-adjustment factor on IQ tests to be rejiggered, it's ridiculous that there are kids with IQ's measured in the 200's.

A 140, by the way, correlates with a 99% level, especially since you were being measured against kids your own age. It's possible that by the time you took the SATs you just weren't trying as hard for whatever reason, or male hormones had kicked in and you were less focused on schoolwork.

jova said...

Interesting that my Height was in the top 99% when I was 13, I was 6'1" at 14 and never grew more.

so while I was taller than 99% of kids my age at age 13 , as an adult 5% of men are taller than me.

so it seems a lot of people caught up to me in height and IQ as my height and IQ stopped advancing around the same time.

John Craig said...

Jova --
Ha, that is a coincidence. But I don't think IQ develops at different rates the same way that kids have their growth spurts at different ages.

If I were you, rather than thinking I peaked early, I'd just be happy to be 6' 1" and have an IQ of 140, and take it from there. (SAT's have a .9 correlation with IQ, but it's not a perfect correlation.)

Steven said...

Obviously the list is ridiculous since most people that have ever lived did so before IQ testing.

Its also ridiculous for the many reasons you pointed out.

The Einstein IQ is particularly egregious since every other high IQ person who is ever reported in the media is said to have a higher IQ than Einstein, even though he NEVER TOOK AN IQ TEST. When you are one of the most eminent physicists of the 20th century, its safe to say you were probably more intelligent than some 14 year old from Wisconsin who just did well on an IQ test.

Next, the Nigerian guy was a fraud. Which comes as big surprise.

James Woods, while obviously not being one of the 20 most intelligent people ever, really is probably mensa capable. He apparently scored 1580 on the SAT with a perfect 800 on the verbal section and he went to MIT, dropping out senior year to pursue acting. He also did okay as a poker player, coming 2nd in one major event.

He was also astute enough to spot a couple of terrorists on an aeroplane in August 2001 just from their behaviour and demeanor. He reported them to the authorities, was interviewed by the FBI, and apparently later identified two of them as 911 terrorists. So, James Woods is a pretty smart guy.

Steven said...

Surely more than 5% of men are over 6 foot 1. I'm 6 foot and see guys taller than me all the time.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Agreed about Einstein, I've seen his IQ listed at 160 in other places, for some reason that ridiculous number has been stuck to him and he can't seem to shake free of it.

James Woods may be very smart, and I may have given him short shrift, but it's ridiculous to call him the 16th smartest man ever to have lived, ahead of Shakespeare, Darwin, Dickens, Michelangelo, et al.

Steven said...

Have you heard of John Von Neumann, a polymath and an extremely influential mathematician who made significant contributions to a few fields?

This is what Wigner said about him:

"I have known a great many intelligent people in my life. I knew Planck, von Laue and Heisenberg. Paul Dirac was my brother in law; Leo Szilard and Edward Teller have been among my closest friends; and Albert Einstein was a good friend, too. But none of them had a mind as quick and acute as Jansci [John] von Neumann. I have often remarked this in the presence of those men and no one ever disputed me."

After Fermi had collaborated with JVN, he remarked to his close assistant and collaborator Herbert Anderson, "You know, Herb, how much faster I am in thinking than you are. That is how much faster von Neumann is compared to me."

Herman Goldstine writes: "One of his remarkable abilities was his power of absolute recall. As far as I could tell, von Neumann was able on once reading a book or article to quote it back verbatim; moreover, he could do it years later without hesitation. He could also translate it at no diminution in speed from its original language into English. On one occasion I tested his ability by asking him to tell me how The Tale of Two Cities started. Whereupon, without any pause, he immediately began to recite the first chapter and continued until asked to stop after about ten or fifteen minutes."

One famous observation about him was that he was almost like an evolution beyond man.

Now bear all that in mind when you read the full quote from Wigner:

"....But none of them had a mind as quick and acute as Jansci [John] von Neumann. I have often remarked this in the presence of those men and no one ever disputed me.

"... But Einstein's understanding was deeper even than von Neumann's. His mind was both more penetrating and more original than von Neumann's. And that is a very remarkable statement. Einstein took an extraordinary pleasure in invention. Two of his greatest inventions are the Special and General Theories of Relativity; and for all of Jansci's brilliance, he never produced anything as original."

John Craig said...

Steven --
Thank you for that, that was very interesting and illuminating. I've heard that after you get past an IQ of 145 or so, it almost doesn't make any difference what your number is, what you produce is mostly a function of whatever special spark your brain has, and that special spark -- or twist, or whatever you want to call it -- cannot be measured on an IQ test. I realize this isn't the point you're making with Einstein, you're arguing that the 160 number that is assigned to him is misleading and probably wrong. But actually, the theory repeated above sort of corroborates what you're saying as well.

I think a lot of people who have photographic memories, as Von Neumann obviously did, may be autistic, what used to be called idiot savants. They are extremely, almost inhumanly talented in some direction, but they often lack the insight to really make use of the special faculties they have.

I've also heard it theorized that Einstein may have had Aspergers, but I don't believe it. I've read some of the letters he's written, and there's nothing Asperger-y about them. Plus his ability to synthesize things makes him seem broad as well as deep, in a way that is the opposite of autistic.

Steven said...

The main point of my post was how cool is VN! I found reading those things about him compelling so I wanted to share it and I offer him as a candidate for one of the smartest known guys ever. His ability to compute mathematically was legendary and almost peerless. I don't think he was autistic though- he had a wife and friends and I get the impression he was socially quite normal.

I think there is some validity to that idea of 'whatever special spark your brain has' but there is a fallacious theory that above a certain IQ, extra IQ points don't make you a more capable scholar or more productive. Steve Hus has addressed this:

' Additional IQ points do appear to “matter” — even above, say, IQ 145. E.g. the mean IQ of eminent scientists (IQ 160) is much higher than that of average PhDs (IQ 130). Also, in a longitudinal study of children identified as gifted at age 13, the “1 in 10,000″-level children had significantly better life outcomes than the “1 in 100″-level children, even though they generally all received “gifted child” development paths. '

This is an excerpt from his blog:

'Luis Alvarez laid it out bluntly:

The world of mathematics and theoretical physics is hierarchical. That was my first exposure to it. There's a limit beyond which one cannot progress. The differences between the limiting abilities of those on successively higher steps of the pyramid are enormous.

See also Out on the tail. People who work in "soft" fields (even in science) don't seem to understand this stark reality. I believe it is because their fields do not have ready access to right and wrong answers to deep questions. When those are available, huge differences in cognitive power are undeniable, as is the utility of this power. '

John Craig said...

Steven ---
I can accept that, and it makes sense. But I suspect that what I saw was referring not just to scientists or mathematicians, where conceptual understanding is key, but genius musical composers, poets, playwrights, etc.

And if VN was normal socially, then, yes, he was incredibly cool.

Steven said...

I see. It would sure be interesting to know the IQs of famous poets. I wonder if they had very high intelligence as well as their creative gifts. I would think Shakespeare did.

There are musical savants, just like mathematical ones. They have incredible abilities. Not sure if they have high IQs.

Daniel Tammet- 'the boy with the incredible brain'- has extremely rare mathematical abilities and became fluent in Icelandic in one week. He is classified as 'high functioning autistic' meaning basically he got the savant bit without the social problems.

There is a documentary about him on youtube and he's been on Letterman.

Richard Feynman is my favourite example of how you can be normal, well adjusted and happy while having extraordinary mental abilities. Feynman was known to be a lover of the ladies, came across as incredibly engaged, enthusiastic and joyful and was fun loving. He was even a good bongo player.

This is an enjoyable documentary about his quest to go to Tannu Tuva, in which he displays his bongo playing skills at the start. I always find Feynman uplifting and interesting.

John Craig said...

Steven --
I'm not saying that what I read was necessarily about the arts, I don't even remember where I read it. I'm just saying I suspect it was; but honestly, I don't remember.

Yes, Feynman was a charismatic guy. I know nothing about physics, so can't appreciate his work. But he certainly had a lot of fans, to the point of almost having a cult following, which is rare for a scientist.

Anonymous said...

"There are several prominent IQ tests: ... the Woodcock-Johnson ..."
Do you get extra points for not snickering at the test's name?

Anonymous said...


What do you think would be the average IQ of your blog readers by your own guestimate? We won't be offended ha ha

By blog readers I guess I would mean "fans".


John Craig said...

Anon --
Ha! I thought the same thing when I saw that name. (And guess I don't deserve the extra points, because I did snicker, even if I didn't dwell on it in the post.)

John Craig said...

Andrew --
Honestly, I have no idea. There are a few people who comment on a regular basis, including yourself, who sound quite smart. But as to the vast majority, I can't tell. I would say that the people who read on a regular basis have a taste for reality, as opposed to political correctness, and wanting to hear reality is a function of tough-mindedness, and the ability to think for one's self has to be positively correlates with IQ. But any guess I made as to average IQ would be a stab in the dark.

(People who read this irregularly stumble upon it for all sorts of reasons, often because they've Google-imaged something, and just want to see a picture of the FEMEN protesters or the like. So this blog seems to be a masturbatory aid, among other things. The setup here doesn't allow me to see who reads it, but it does allow me to see the searches that land here, and there are a surprising amount of searches for things like "Daniel Craig naked," or "underage prepubescent girls topless," and things like that. But those people are obviously not regular readers.)

One thing I have noticed is that among the people I know personally whom I've told about the blog, those who've stuck with it seem in general to be the smarter ones. Again, it's not a perfect correlation, and I'm flattering myself by saying this, but there is a positive correlation there.

Anonymous said...

Hey John,

It's a nice dose of reality.

Mines 120 FWIW.

I don't think I'm very intelligent at all. I actually would self rate myself maybe just above average. Whats yours again?


John Craig said...

Andrew --
Thank you.

120 is well above average. And whatever the number, you strike me as a guy who thinks clearly, without the fog of political correctness obscuring your vision.

I tested at 155 as a kid, have always used that as "my number," although I've taken other tests since. (And as I pointed out in this post, it's a lot easier to score high when you're a child.) There are all sorts of tests available on the internet, although most of them are just come ons for various commercial products.

Anonymous said...

HI John

Thanks!... just cant stand hypocrites

I'm guessing your number would be pretty close to 155 then?

It's also interesting that you will get some really intelligent people making some really...really bad decisions. Decisions an average Joe would not even consider.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Didn't I just point out that that was a number obtained as a child?

No question, I've made lots of horrible decisions in my life.

Anonymous said...

Well you said you have taken other tests since.


John Craig said...

Andrew --
Good point. I was going to say that the other tests all gave me roughly the same score, though none of them were taken under the same strictly controlled conditions. But I didn't say it because it would have been exacerbating the boast, so to speak. I was actually not sure whether I should mention a number at all, but since you asked…..

There's really no upside to mentioning one's IQ. If it's low, people think less of you, if it's high, people resent you and ask why you haven't lived up to your potential. Or, I guess, they think you're lying.