Many Kinds of Smart (A Continuing Series)

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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50 Responses to Many Kinds of Smart (A Continuing Series)

  1. max says:

    I think your disagreement with Isaacson is largely semantic. Isaacson was just defining smart to be precisely that kind of smart that allows you to solve logic puzzles easily, and then pointing out that one doesn’t necessarily need that kind of smart to be a genius. Probably a silly way to use the word, but not one that doesn’t have precedent.

    Then again, I may have misread the article. I’m not that smart.

  2. sievemaria says:

    The only kind of *smarts* that is useful and Knowledge worth pursuing is that which helps one lead a better life.

  3. Meng Bomin says:

    I like Isaacson’s terminology better than yours if for no other reason than it distinguishes between the concepts of being a “genius” and being “smart”. If one were to use Sean Carroll’s terminology instead of Walter Isaacson’s, it becomes less simple to express the thought that one does not need to be smart to be a genius, which is, in my opinion, an important insight.

  4. Joel Rice says:

    Tomonaga was going on about how Heisenberg used analogies, Pauli took a frontal attack, and Dirac was simply ‘acrobatic’ – being much too modest to mention his own genius – in his 1973 lectures on “the Story of Spin”. Funny how a bunch of geniuses missed the ‘Thomas Factor” that arises in an accelerated reference frame.

  5. speranza says:

    Perhaps the disagreement is semantic; perhaps Isaacson’s terminology makes a distinction our ordinary usage doesn’t. The problem with adopting a non-standard definition of a word is that it brings its ordinary-language associations and implications along with it. So while Isaacson’s usage, equating puzzle-solving with smarts, might make a useful distinction, it carries along the unfortunate implication that Steve Jobs was dim, slow, obtuse, not good at thinking, et cetera. I think that’s Sean’s point here — let’s not redefine “smart” in a narrow, idiosyncratic way, because if we do we risk throwing out some pretty smart babies with our uninterested-in-puzzles bathwater.

  6. Jess Riedel says:

    > Albert Einstein was the most successful physicist of the twentieth century, but it was Neils Bohr who really pushed quantum mechanics forward.

    I’m not so sure this is a good summary. David Griffith had this to say about Bohr’s contribution:

    “It is interesting to note the Bohr was an outspoken critic of Einstein’s light quantum (prior to 1924), that he mercilessly denounced Shrodinger’s equation, discouraged Dirac’s work on relativistic electron theory (telling him, incorrectly, that Klein and Gordon had already succeeded), opposed Pauli’s introduction of the neutrino, ridiculed Yakawa’s theory of the meson, and disparaged Feynman’s approach to quantum electrodynamics. Great scientists do not always have good judgement–especially when it concerns other people’s work–but Bohr must hold the all-time record.” (“Introduction to elementary particles”, David Jeffery Griffiths)

    Even worse, to me, was the lasting damage Bohr did to how we teach quantum mechanics. For example, see “Early Gedanken Experiments of Quantum Mechanics Revisited” by Yu Shi (h.t. Godfrey Miller).

    http://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/9811050

    Roughly, the uncertainty relation championed by Bohr is exactly the wrong way to think about quantum mechanics. Entanglement, which Einstein knew was important yet could never properly articulate, is the primary idea for understanding the non-intuitive aspects of quantum mechanics.

  7. Arun says:

    I think this obsession with “smartness” is very damaging. It lends itself too much to “I’m not good at math (or school work or whatever else)” because I’m not smart”. A good degree of “smartness” can be acquired, but acquired ability is typically not included in the common understanding of “smart”. The judgment of “smart” that people confer on others is simply another obstacle in the effort to accomplish anything. The only meaningful measure really is to ask – what are your goals? and then, do you bring enough along to accomplish those goals? By that measure, Steve Jobs had or developed his abilities to accomplish what he dreamed of. (Of course, there is the goal of wanting to be perceived as smart by one’s colleagues – but that goal is not a particularly worthy goal.)

    Steve Jobs’ accomplishments are stellar, whether or not he was “smart”. How does a verdict of “Yes, Jobs was smart” or “No, Jobs was not smart” make his accomplishments more comprehensible or emulatable? How does his smarts or lack of it, add luster to or diminish his accomplishments?

    Whatever label you apply to Jobs, his accomplishments are unchanged. This topic of smartness may be the atheists’ equivalent of discussions of God’s Will or the non-superstitious’s equivalent of the discussion of Fate. Being able to add the label “smart” to someone seems to hold some psychological satisfaction utterly out of proportion with any explanatory power that it confers.

  8. Arun says:

    To quote the Tiger Mom, Amy Chua, “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.”

    The culture of “smartness” detracts from this.

  9. Kirk says:

    First, I have to care. That is the first rule of motivation.

    I simply don’t like the missionary/cannibal/canoe or fox/hen/monkey puzzles. Or is it an Orca/unicorn/scorpion, I just cannot trouble myself to remember…

  10. bigjohn756 says:

    But, didn’t Jobs delay his normal cancer treatment for nine months while he pursued alternative medical treatments which had no basis in science? That’s not smart.

  11. karaktur says:

    There are many kinds of smart and they have different names: Smart, intelligent, educated, and wise. But there are also bright, clever, savant, genius and others. If we think about how we use these words we can discover that do each mean something slightly different.

  12. Jim Cross says:

    “Mr. Jobs tossed out a few intuitive guesses but showed no interest in grappling with the problem rigorously.”

    I imagine Jobs might have had quite a bit more on his mind to expend his brain power on than a puzzle, to say nothing about the fact he was at dinner with his family.

    Sean, I expected a post today on the Zombie Paradox – how lumbering zombies dragging one leg always seem to be able to catch healthy running non-zombies. I am certain the Zombie Paradox probably has some deep significance to cosmology, quantum mechanics, relativity, or something if only we could explain it.

  13. Jennifer says:

    Sean this is great, both your post and the zombie paradox in the comment above. I think your reaction to Isaacson’s conclusion from the dinnertime discussion on monkeys and bananas is spot on. That is some faulty logic on Isaacson’s part.

    I would say that if anything, the anecdote reveals the kind of prioritizing that brilliant people do. Namely, full immersion in what they are doing at the time – whether it be working on a project, or having dinner with family. Full immersion. No interest in having dinner while working on projects, no interest in working out puzzles (something like work, trouble shooting, idea generating) while enjoying a family dinner.

    But it’s more likely that he just wasn’t interested.

  14. Steve Jobs and was a smart business person. He wasn’t in any way close to the smartness of the great scientists. He had some good technological ideas, but he didn’t invent mp3 technology or discover any of the outstanding science that enabled the hardware in his shiny ipods etc to work.

    In fact Jobs and his corporation were most likely the lucky beneficiary of the short wonderful (illegal) reign of Napster – which brought mp3s to the mass public in volumes that Jobs et al would never have achieved with restrictive business models.

    Successful scientists are definitely smart, successful business people are mostly lucky and determined, I mean obviously one or two products are going to be market leaders, even if they’re “crap” (eg early windows – sorry Sean, windowsXP and windows7 are not “crap”)

    A better comparison would be Jobs, Gates, Torvalds – place them in order of “smartness” – I bet over 90% of people would pick the same order (Torvalds top, then Gates then Jobs) – but successful scientists are in a different league of smartness.

  15. Justin Loe says:

    Smartness is usefully defined as the success of an individual in your profession. Essentially, a scientist will regard another scientist as “smart”, while a successful musician will regard other members of their profession as “smart.” Likewise, the rank order of “smartness” by which any of us judges the intelligence of people in other professions likely reflects the metrics of of fellows in our own field. This is certainly normal and expected, since we judge the world based on our own experience of it, and not based on the experience of working in other fields, which we haven’t had.

    Who’s smarter, Beethoven or Einstein? I think it’s essentially a meaningless question, since they are each smart in their own domain of expertise but not in the other.

  16. johnthompson says:

    What James Gallagher said at @14! That’s a really good insight on Napster and mp3s. It’s easy to forget that it was the iPod & iTunes that really saved Apple.
    plus
    “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.”
    That’s very nicely said Sean,. I do hope you (and the other Cosmic Variance bloggers who don’t blog much) remember it the next time you are on a graduate admissions committee looking at Physics GRE scores…..

  17. Mark P says:

    I agree with Sean – there is no meaningful definition of “smart” under which Jobs can be considered not smart. I think one reason, perhaps the main reason, anyone tries to figure out whether Jobs was “smart” is that it gives us a way to tear him down so that we can treat him (or his memory) with less intimidation. If we can conclude that he was not smart, then we can feel superior to him, despite his tremendous success. Because we, of course, are smart.

  18. jick says:

    I’m not quite sure what you meant by: “Bill Gates read science books in his leisure time, but the design of his products was crap.”

    Paraphrasing your own word, I can’t think of any useful definition of the word “smart” under which Steve Jobs does qualify and Bill Gates doesn’t. (Remember, Apple nearly vanished from history because Microsoft’s products just f**king worked.)

  19. tim Rowledge says:

    and children on their own never want to work,

    … which just goes to show that Ms. Chu ain’t all that smart about children.

  20. Malc says:

    “…..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.”

    AGREED!

  21. JohnGalt says:

    Imagine, people in one faction claiming to be smarter than people in a different faction. Imagine all the people living in harmony… ha, ha…

  22. Elliot Tarabour says:

    Another aspect of “smartness” in science that I think gets less credit than it deserves is the ability to ask the “right” questions. Although those who ask key questions don’t often get credit for the solution, the ability to put these issues front and center is critical in my mind.

  23. Eric says:

    Re: “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. ”

    I had to chuckle when I read this. We had our quals last month. Most of us passed at the PhD level, one student passed at the Master’s level, and a few other failed altogether.

    Here’s the kicker: They guy who passed only at the Master’s level? He’s the only one of us to be first author in paper published in Nature. Heck, one of the highest scoring candidates hasn’t even published a single paper yet (but can get that 99% on the Physics GRE and ace the Quals!).

  24. sievemaria says:

    Jobs gave us creations that were no longer homely and plain about homely and plain things but he gave us skill and invention – his threats of simplicity and necessaries turns to threats of disaster fr complex technology. good thing bad thing, who can say. What is important is he never joined the intellectual or academic crowd.

  25. sievemaria says:

    His experiences with LSD were transformative ! so he says.