Planet Earth

Many Kinds of Smart (A Continuing Series)

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollOct 31, 2011 1:14 PM


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Steve Hsu points us to an NYT op-ed by Walter Isaacson, in which he ponders the crucial question, "Was Steve Jobs smart?" Isaacson has written biographies of both Jobs and Albert Einstein, so he should know from smart. One might think that the answer is an obvious "yes," and Isaacson admits this. But then he tells this anecdote:

But I remember having dinner with him a few months ago around his kitchen table, as he did almost every evening with his wife and kids. Someone brought up one of those brainteasers involving a monkey’s having to carry a load of bananas across a desert, with a set of restrictions about how far and how many he could carry at one time, and you were supposed to figure out how long it would take. Mr. Jobs tossed out a few intuitive guesses but showed no interest in grappling with the problem rigorously.

And what are we to conclude from this?

So was Mr. Jobs smart? Not conventionally.

Arrrgh. I'm not sure what kind of conventionality is being invoked, but I don't want any part of it. We all know about Steve Jobs's accomplishments. Built a major multinational corporation, created (or at least nurtured) several different devices that noticeably changed our everyday lives, became an icon for user-friendly and design-savvy technology. And he didn't do it all just by getting lucky, or even by simple hard work. There is no useful definition of the word "smart" under which Steve Jobs doesn't qualify. Isaacson explains Jobs's success, despite his lack of smarts, by saying he was a "genius," or at least "ingenious," and going on about intuition and wisdom and visual thinking and overcoming Western rationality. (His examples of plodding non-geniuses include Henri Poincaré and David Hilbert, maybe not the best choices.) (Also, we are told that Einstein was a genius, but not whether he was smart.) But why in the world wouldn't we describe someone who was wise, was a brilliant visual thinker, and exhibited world-class intuition and imagination as "smart"? Because he wasn't interested in a brain teaser about monkeys carrying bananas? (Not even that he tried to solve the puzzle and failed -- just that he wasn't interested.) The answer is apparently ... yes. Maybe it's from talking to too many physicists while working on the Einstein biography, but Isaacson falls into a trap that snares many people, especially academics, and especially mathematicians and scientists: a view of intelligence that narrows down to an ability to solve logic puzzles and do well on IQ tests. It's the kind of attitude that judges graduate students by how well they do on their qualifying exams, rather than the quality of their actual research. It's easy to fetishize puzzle-solving ability, because it's easy to demonstrate and measure and quantify. But there is more than one way to be smart. We're not talking here about feel-good attempts to grant equal amounts of smartness to every living person, or to reclassify "common sense" or "down-home wisdom" as superior kinds of intelligence, or even an ability to deal with people on an everyday level. We're talking about a very traditional notion of smarts: solving problems, having ideas, speaking and writing well, seeing things clearly. Sometimes you can be very good at those things, and not very good at (or interested in) logic puzzles or IQ tests. Even within the narrow range of logic-puzzle-smarts, there are very different kinds. Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann were smart by any measure, but they were also very different thinkers. Professional mathematicians can be grouped roughly into "algebraists" and "geometers," and the two groups sometimes have trouble talking to each other. Anyone who has observed successful scientists over a period of time cannot possibly miss the fact that there are many different approaches to success. This isn't an academic discussion -- different problems require different ways of being smart. Bill Gates read science books in his leisure time, but the design of his products was crap. Albert Einstein was the most successful physicist of the twentieth century, but it was Neils Bohr who really pushed quantum mechanics forward. The problem isn't that we need to look beyond smarts -- it's that we need to acknowledge smarts when we see them.

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