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 Rantlifestyle.com? 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 Rantlifestyle.com. 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.