Finding the Next Einstein

Why smart is relative

The Right Way to Treat Child Geniuses

On Jordan Ellenberg’s essay in the Wall Street Journal

Jordan Ellenberg recently wrote an essay in the Wall Street Journal titled “The Wrong Way to Treat Child Geniuses.”

He recounts his childhood as a “genius” and part of the group identified by the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth as one of the top 1 in 10,000 (a group with an average of 180 IQ).  At age 12, he got a perfect 800 on the math SAT and a 680 on the verbal SAT.  Now he’s a distinguished professor of mathematics, a novelist, and a nonfiction writer.  And he has a new book out.

“I started reading at 2. I could multiply two-digit numbers in my head when I was 5. One of my earliest memories is working out a way to generate Pythagorean triples. In third grade, I commuted to the local junior high to take geometry. Kids on the playground would sometimes test me by asking what a million times a million was—and were delighted when I knew the answer.”

He is not an ordinary person.  In fact, here is a diagram showing just how extraordinary he actually is:

“Those of us who managed sky-high SAT scores at 13 were 20 times as likely as the average American to get a doctorate; let's say, being charitable, that we're 100 times as likely to make a significant scientific advance. Since we're only 1 in 10,000 of the U.S. population, that still leaves 99% of scientific advances to be made by all those other kids who didn't get an early ticket to the genius club. We geniuses aren't going to solve all the riddles. Most child prodigies are highly successful—but most highly successful people weren't child prodigies.”

He is absolutely correct that people at his IQ level are not going to solve all the riddles.  My research on the U.S. (here) and world (here) elite shows that much more than IQ matters when it comes to reaching the top of nearly every profession.  My research also shows that a large fraction of people who make it to the top are in the top 1% of cognitive ability, and the vast majority are likely in the top percentiles of cognitive ability.  See here for a summary.  If you consider the top percentiles in IQ to roughly represent the gifted population, then gifted people are indeed likely to be disproportionately overrepresented among high achievers in nearly every field.

Finally, his main conclusion: “today, I don’t think we’re paying too little attention to our young geniuses.  I think we’re paying too much.”

Perhaps in his case, this might be true.  Both his parents are established professors of statistics (see here and here) and according to his Wikipedia page he was discovered by a math teacher at a nearby high school very early on who oversaw his math development before the fourth grade.  He has every mark of  a child math prodigy so his talent was not neglected.  However, this is because he did not lack intellectual stimulation or resources.

I think Ellenberg puts too much weight on his personal experience, and fails to consider that there are many people out there with extraordinary talent but who did not have the chance to have their talent developed to the extent that he did.  For example, according to the National Association of Gifted Children website, federal K-12 education funding is near zero.  The students who lose out are not the Jordan Ellenbergs who had parents who could make sure his needs were met.  The students who lose out are the potential Jordan Ellenbergs who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and depend on public gifted education programs to have their talent developed.

At least to me, that’s the wrong way to treat child geniuses.

© 2014 by Jonathan Wai

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

 
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