Finding the Next Einstein

Why smart is relative

Do Gifted Kids Want to Be a Scientific Genius Today?

There are now more gifted students, but are they geniuses?

from Wikimedia Commons
Dean Keith Simonton recently argued in Nature that scientific geniuses may well be extinct today. (Rebecca Boyle’s article in Popular Science gives an excellent overview).  But are there more gifted kids today, who arguably have the potential to become a scientific genius like Einstein?  And are they choosing to become scientists?

The mystery really begins with a series of yearly reports from 2009 through 2012 by New York Times writers Elissa Gootman, Sharon Otterman, and Anna M. Phillips:

May 4, 2009: “More Children Take the Tests for Gifted Programs, and More Qualify”
April 30, 2010: “More Pre-K Pupils Qualify for Gifted Programs”
June 21, 2011: “More Preeschoolers Test as Gifted, Even as Diversity Imbalance Persists”
April 13, 2012: “After Number of Gifted Soars, a Fight for Kindergarten Slots”

It appears that year after year there are more gifted students being identified in New York City.  But what about states other than New York?  Are there more gifted students being identified all across America?  And could this actually be linked to and/or explained by a broader phenomenon such as The Flynn effect, which is the consistent rise in IQ over the last 80 or so years?

In a recent article in Current Directions in Psychological Science titled “Studying Intellectual Outliers,” my colleagues Martha Putallaz, Matthew Makel and I examined whether there are more gifted students being identified in the 16 state region in the Southeastern United States where the Duke University Talent Identification Program Talent Search takes place.  We essentially examined whether the Flynn effect operates for the smartest 5% of the American population, something that had never been done before.

Using a sample of over 1.7 million test scores on the SAT, ACT, and EXPLORE given to gifted 5th, 6th, and 7th graders from 1981 through 2010, we found that there are indeed more gifted students being identified in recent years in states well beyond New York (primarily on the math subtests).  And this can be linked to the Flynn effect, which is the mysteriously consistent rise in IQ over many decades.  So New York isn’t really all that special.  More gifted kids are popping up all around the country.  This is likely due to the fact that average scores are rising whereas the cut scores to qualify for gifted programs have remained the same.

But if the Flynn effect explains the larger number of gifted students in New York and other states, what explains the Flynn effect?  Although there are many potential explanations, my favorites for the increasing number of intellectual outliers include test sophistication, cognitive stimulation (such as technology and video games), and the fact that smart people might be pairing up and having smarter kids.  However, researchers in this area are still not quite sure whether general intelligence is actually increasing, or whether something like test sophistication is driving the score increases.

So there are certainly many more kids testing higher on IQ tests today.  But are there really more geniuses today?

from Wikipedia
If your definition of a genius is someone like Einstein who may only come along once every few centuries, then the answer is no.  However, if you are willing to consider geniuses as people who score extremely high on an intelligence or IQ test, then perhaps this is why Steven Pinker thinks we are “living in a period of extraordinary intellectual accomplishment.”  Just consider the scientific and literary intellectuals that overwhelmingly congregate in John Brockman’s Edge who without a doubt have a collective mean IQ in the stratosphere.  If there are more geniuses today this also means there are more amazing devices and ideas being created than ever before, which is highly beneficial for all of us.

I think Simonton may be correct in that we have not yet found the next Einstein.  But perhaps part of the reason we haven’t found a scientific genius today is because the smartest kids may be increasingly choosing not to pursue a career in science because there are so many other interesting and financially rewarding things to do.  For example, creating the next Facebook, Google, or Microscoft and becoming a billionaire.

© 2013 by Jonathan Wai

You can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or G+. For more of Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative go here.

A version of this article originally appeared on Business Insider.

Jonathan Wai, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, and research scientist at Duke University.


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