"Geniuses" without stellar IQ scores other than Feynman
August 27, 2015 6:00 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of people who were considered geniuses in science, art, invention and other disciplines, but whose IQ scores were merely respectable, between 100 and 140. Richard Feynman, whose IQ was in the 120s, is a good example. But have there been others?
posted by Beethoven's Sith to Grab Bag (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to look at the list of people who have won MacArthur Foundation fellowships. A lot of them won the "Genius Grant", not because of mental horsepower, but because of their dedication, hard work, unique perspective, curiosity, or any number of other characteristics.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 6:46 AM on August 27, 2015 [5 favorites]

James Watson (co-discoverer of the structure of DNA). His IQ was scored at 124, to Feynman's 125.

More names at 10 Amazingly Successful People Who Would Fail Boris Johnson's Over-130 IQ Test.
posted by rada at 7:07 AM on August 27, 2015

IQ scores were merely respectable, between 100 and 140

This is actually a phenomenally large range because IQ is scored on a natural distribution. The jump from 100 to 105 is a lot less impressive than the jump from 130 to 135 because it is not linear. Assuming a standard deviation of 15 and 100 as the mean/median/mode, a score of 100 is just the 50th percentile, not respectable at all. On the other hand, a score of 140 would be the 99.62nd percentile. The top score that can be reliably test is 145 on a SD=15 scale, or the 99.87th percentile i.e. 1 in 1,000. So 140 isn't "merely respectable" but near the limits of what can be tested. This is why claims of people with IQs like 160 and such are nonsense.

That said, Feynman self-reported that he received 125 (about 94th percentile) on an unnamed school IQ test. No one knows what test this was or if Feynman accurately reported the score, although I suspect it was more of a verbal test because what we do know is that he earned the highest score nationwide on the Putnam Competition examination, which is "the most prestigious university-level mathematics examination in the world, and its difficulty is such that the median score is often zero or one (out of 120) despite being attempted by students specializing in mathematics." Given Feynman's highest-in-the-nation score on perhaps the world's hardest university-level mathematics exam indicates that his general intelligence was quite high.

FWIW, it is common to see news articles about the IQ scores of various famous people but it is rare to see any sort of citation. For example, the linked HuffPo UK article purports to state Abraham Lincoln's IQ but he died decades before the first IQ test was administered. I think this sort of information is very hard to accurately find. In fact, the only reliable source of celebrity IQs I can think of is the NFL, which has been administering the Wonderlic to all incoming players for decades. (This is also key - an IQ score of X on what test? Wonderlic? WAIS? Stanford-Binet?) If you can get a SAT or similar standardized test score, you can often extrapolate a general intelligence score, depending on the test and the year it was administered.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:46 AM on August 27, 2015 [30 favorites]

In an autobiographical essay, famous mathematician Julia Robinson records her IQ as a 98, as measured by the Otis test in junior high. She explains this by saying that she was a slow reader.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:12 AM on August 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

You might like this thread.
posted by PickeringPete at 9:04 AM on August 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

[A few comments deleted. OP's looking for examples of people for whom this is true; let's stick to that rather than getting off into discussion of the merits of IQ testing generally. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:31 AM on August 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

E O Wilson supposedly got right around 120 on an IQ test. He said that when people with low IQs got a good idea they tended to investigate it in great detail and squeeze everything out of it, because they might not get another one.

FDR was described as having a second rate intellect, but a first rate temperament. No actually mention of his IQ, however.

I suspect that you'll find some good examples among artists - not because artists are all stupid, but because IQ tests don't necessarily cover the things that let artists be great. Andy Warhol, for example, was rumored to have a very low IQ (although I can't actually find a primary source for this. All the references on the web seem to quote this as something that everyone knows).
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:46 AM on August 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Feynman IQ result is clearly bogus based on his performance on other tests. Perhaps the test cited gave a strong bias to spelling and grammar which were not his strong points.
See this article in Psychology Today which says:

3. Is it true Feynman's IQ score was only 125?

Feynman was universally regarded as one of the fastest thinking and most creative theorists in his generation. Yet it has been reported-including by Feynman himself-that he only obtained a score of 125 on a school IQ test. I suspect that this test emphasized verbal, as opposed to mathematical, ability. Feynman received the highest score in the country by a large margin on the notoriously difficult Putnam mathematics competition exam, although he joined the MIT team on short notice and did not prepare for the test. He also reportedly had the highest scores on record on the math/physics graduate admission exams at Princeton. It seems quite possible to me that Feynman's cognitive abilities might have been a bit lopsided-his vocabulary and verbal ability were well above average, but perhaps not as great as his mathematical abilities. I recall looking at excerpts from a notebook Feynman kept while an undergraduate. While the notes covered very advanced topics for an undergraduate-including general relativity and the Dirac equation-it also contained a number of misspellings and grammatical errors. I doubt Feynman cared very much about such things.
posted by w0mbat at 12:31 PM on August 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

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