Skip to main content

The Genius Checklist - Dean Keith Simonton ***

There's something uncomfortable about the cover of this book. It's hard to read something that says 'Nine paradoxical tips on how YOU! can become a creative genius,' and not expect a self-help book, however scientifically based. However, this is not such a book, and you'd think a psychologist like Dean Keith Simonton would realise that promising something and then not delivering it is not a great way to win over your audience.

Instead what we have here is an interesting exploration of what we mean by 'genius' - a fuzzy enough concept that it covers many different abilities - and a set of nine contradictions (that's the 'paradoxical' bit) in listing possible causes for being a genius. So, for example, we are told it's good to score 140 or more on IQ test, but IQ doesn't really matter, or that it's all down to the genes, but home and school are what make it happen. The very nature of these paradoxical statements makes it clear that this book cannot tell you how YOU! can become a creative genius. The chances are that Simonton was being ironic in his use of that self-help language - but that doesn't really help the purchaser.

I did find the book interesting, partly for that exploration of what gets labelled genius, but mostly because it reveals so much about how poor the scientific credentials of much psychological research seem to be. It doesn't help that Simonton refers to the work of Freud as 'science'. But more worrying is the way that he seems to find it worth discussing an old study that claimed to work out IQs of long dead people from biographical details - doubly strange as this used childhood performance to deduce adult IQ, which Simonton's 'Turn yourself into a child prodigy/wait until you can become a late bloomer' section seems to suggest is pointless. Also Simonton tells out that the study's data was cherry picked, which should totally invalidate it. Not to mention that he doesn’t mention that the concept of IQ has been pretty much dismissed except as measure of the ability to pass IQ tests.

Over and over again, what we seem to get is correlation being confused with causality, yet the book makes little effort to explain this, nor does it bring in the relatively recent revelation of just how many of such soft science results have proved unreproducible. And some of the conclusions are themselves confusing. For example, in the nature/nurture section, Simonton concludes that roughly half of who you become depends on genes and half on 'choosing your home and school environments.' As it happens, the next book I started reading after this one was Robert Plomin's Blueprint, which makes it clear (in a lot more convincing fashion) that the 50:50 split is distinctly misleading.

All it really seems possible to come away from this book with, apart from a distinct concern about the scientific nature of this part of psychology, is that we really don't know a lot about genius. And that probably would have made a better article than a book.



Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

Six Impossible Things - John Gribbin *****

On first handling John Gribbin's book, it's impossible not to think of Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons in Physics - both are very slim, elegant hardbacks with a numbered set of items within - yet Six Impossible Things is a far, far better book than its predecessor. Where Seven Brief Lessons uses purple prose and vagueness in what feels like a scientific taster menu, Gribbin gives us a feast of precision and clarity, with a phenomenal amount of information for such a compact space. It's a TARDIS of popular science books, and I loved it.

Like rather a lot of titles lately (notably Philip Ball's excellent Beyond Weird), what Gribbin is taking on is not the detail of quantum physics itself - although he does manage to get across its essence in two 'fits' (named after the sections of Hunting of the Snark - Gribbin includes Lewis Carroll's epic poem in his recommended reading, though it's such a shame that the superb version annotated by Martin Gardi…

Elizabeth Bear - Four Way Interview

Elizabeth Bear won the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer in 2005 and has since published 15 novels and numerous short stories. She writes in both the SF and fantasy genres and has won critical acclaim in both. She has won the Hugo Award more than once. She lives in Massachusetts. Her latest title is Ancestral Night.

Why science fiction?

I've been a science fiction fan my entire life, and I feel like SF is the ideal framework for stories about humanity and how we can be better at it. Not just cautionary tales - though there's certainly also value in cautionary tales - but stories with some hope built in that we might, in fact, mature as a species and take some responsibility for things like reflexive bigotry and hate crimes (as I'm writing this, the heartbreaking news about the terrorist attack on Muslim worshipers in Christchurch is everywhere) and global climate destabilization. These are not intractable problems, but we need, as a species, the will to see that we …