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Human behavior unpacked

Paul E. Meehl: Smartest Psychologist of the 20th Century?

In 1975, my undergraduate abnormal psychology teacher made a claim that I will never forget: that Paul E. Meehl was "the smartest living psychologist." Meehl died in 2003. In this post I consider whether Meehl indeed might have been the smartest psychologist of the 20th century. Read More

My thoughts would be that

My thoughts would be that fire departments would contribute because of a need for fire prevention in any structure.

Police departments would have no need to contribute to a phallic shaped building. Because no criminal would ever think of escaping into a building that is shaped as a trap. Unless of course the criminal would have a way to be shot out of the tip of the monument.

Maybe these were conscious decisions and not unconscious after all.

Certainly sounds like a very bright man.

There ia a broaqd description in this artilce about what Meehl was involved with. Admirable that his intelligence stretched into so many areas. Glenn

This is an easy one. Towers

This is an easy one. Towers have been erected for centuries to prevent fires. As a look out point to see them coming. Fire fighters know that apparently. Police do not share this historical fact, as far as I know. So, fire fighters should be more inclined to support the traditional structure chosen to prevent fires. As I said, easy. If I look at the photograph of Mr. Meehl being interviewed, I notice his crossed legs and arms. That would be a defensive posture. How open was the man?

To everyone with another theory about fire departments and police departments

Thank you, everyone, for your interest in suggesting alternative explanations for why more contributions to the Washington monument came from fire departments than police departments. Surely dozens of after-the-fact explanations could be offered. (And researched, too, if someone thought it was worth the trouble.)

But these after-the-fact explanations miss the point, which was Meehl's coming up with his prediction in the first place. As I wrote in the post, anyone can come up with hypotheses such as conscientiousness predicting GPA. Only someone like Meehl could imagine that a marker of phallic fixation (membership in a fire department) would predict financial support for the phallic Washington monument.

Correlation is not Causation

That Meehl's prediction about fire fighter donations came true does not necessarily mean his reasoning was correct. There is no evidence given here that convincingly shows that Meehl's explanation is correct. Rather, it might be he just got lucky.


As I said in the post, "Note that Meehl's successful prediction is not proof of the validity of psychoanalytic theory."

In fact, as you correctly point out, Mark, the successful prediction is not even *evidence* of the validity of his reasoning. Meehl was an early adopter of Karl Popper's philosophy of falsification, wherein experiments can only disconfirm ideas.

Once again, the point is not that Meehl came up with a prediction that turned out to be correct (although if the prediction was falsified I would not have been writing a post about his genius). The part of the story pointing to his creative genius was his ability to formulate a hypothesis so outlandlish that no one else would have thought of it.

In case it is not obvious, my nomination for Meehl as the smartest psychologist of the 20th century is not based on one absurd but successful prediction. The strangeness of his prediction is probably what helped me to remember my teacher's assertion that Meehl was (at that time) the smartest living psychologist. It is his complete body of work, indexed on his Web page, that tells the full story of his genius.

Meehl's IQ

Certainly his accomplishments are astounding. I believe Meehl self-estimated his IQ at around 190+. But he had IQ test scores to back that estimate up. He apparently got one item wrong on the Miller Analogies Test, wrote to the test publisher to explain why he actually got it right, and they awarded him a perfect score. I think he is certainly one of the smartest people out there. He also just happened to be a psychologist. Best, Jon.

You might be interested in the brainpower of social science in general, rather than the tails:


Thanks, Jon, I did not know about Meehl's actual IQ scores. And thank you for the link to the post about intelligence scores across different majors. I went to grad school with Camilla when she was starting her work with Julian Stanley.

Was Paul E. Meehl the smartest 20th-century psychologist?

I should preface my comment by disclosing that I am not an unbiased observer. Paul Meehl was my Ph.D. advisor, co-instructor with me for a number of years of his Philosophical Psychology seminar, co-author on a few
papers, and my best friend for more than twenty years.

Paul Meehl was easily the broadest thinker of any of the hundreds, if not thousands by now, psychologists I have ever met. Perusal of his publication list shows that he contributed to therapeutics, psychological assessment (both psychometric and observational/interview), psychological research methodology (including factor analysis, significance testing, cluster analysis, taxometrics, path analysis, and psychometrics), psychophysiology, the diagnosis, classification and etiology of major psychological disorders (including theorizing on the detailed psychological and genetic pathophysiology thereof), the education and credentialing of clinical psychologists, psychological methodology in several respects (neo-Popperian post-Lakatosian theory testing, cliometrics---the quantitative study of the history of scientific theories, and more), general philosophy of science, the philosophy of causal claims and procedures for testing causal claims, the problem of corroborating/falsifying psychoanalytic inferences, psychodynamic theorizing, animal learning, personality theory and assessment, probabilistic behavioral prediction, mathematical economics, metaphysics/epistemology in philosophy, the mind/body problem and free will/determinism, extrasensory perception, political science, and pharmacotherapy of mental disorders. He was credentialed as a member of the faculty of psychology, psychiatry, law, and philosophy. Nobody else in
psychology I've ever met, or even read, comes close to the breadth of Paul E. Meehl.

Not long before his death, Meehl confided to me what he thought was the best estimate of his IQ. (He was, while not exactly a humble man, not one to point out to others his intelligence. They figured it out real fast, if they conversed with him or attended one of his lectures, for even 15 minutes.) He put it at 180 not 190 as claimed by Dr. Wai.

What I found most striking about Paul's mentation was not, however, its sheet breadth, but the _quality_ of his verbal output in these many topic areas. As a generalization, I can say based on more or less daily (but for one yeer) contact with him over the period 1980-2003, that a conversation with him would yield, with p > .98, multiple scintillating insights and questions, ones I had not only not thought of but in all likelihood would not have thought of (at any rate, not in a reasonable amount of time, whereas he came up with this stuff in random conversation in a matter of seconds---I say this in my own defense, because while freely admitting that it was clear to me from reading him, before I ever met him or studied with him, that he was significantly smarter than I am; and I am by reputation not a dumb psychologist). He could see the remote logical implications of premise(s) almost instantaneously, including counterintuitive inferences. Conversing with Paul was my principal source of reinforcement when I was in
graduate school at Minnesota and after joining the faculty there.

I miss Paul Meehl every day.

Will Grove
Psychology Dept.
U. of Minnesota-Twin Cities

Thank you!!!

Thank you so much, Will, for sharing your unique, personal insights on Paul Meehl's intellect. It is great to hear from someone who was so close to him.

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John A. Johnson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University.


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