Richard Feynman’s IQ

There’s a long-standing debate about Feynman’s IQ, which reportedly was ‘only’ 125 or so.

Like clay, many IQ denialists and, regrettably, HBD folks mold the score to suit their respective presuppositions: that, for the denalists, it’s evidence IQ is not important or, for the HBD folk, that Feynman’s ‘low’ score isn’t his ‘true’ IQ.

I am of the opinion these are both wrong. As we wrote many times on this blog, IQ is not a meaningless number and is positively correlated of a myriad of things such as academic achievement, income, and wealth. People with higher IQs tend to learn faster and retain more of what they learn than people with lower IQs and are more capable of abstract thought. So, now that we covered the denialist’s argument, let’s move on to the second group who insists Feynman’s score is wrong.

There is a tendency of people in the HBD movement to underestimate the ability of someone with an IQ in the 120′s as well individuals with extreme IQ’s (>160).

The 125 score for Feynman seems right. Ineluctably, he was a genius in his field, but not precocious and prodigious like many super-high IQ people. He still had to take all the k-12 grades. What separates the 120-140 people from the > 160 cohort is that the later advance so quickly that they are on a whole ‘nother level. They read Britannica encyclopedias and books written for adults when their peers have never even seen a ‘chapter book’. They breeze through math easily, but everything else, too. It’s like they have a supranatural ability to learn stuff. There are a few studies, anecdotal descriptions, and literature on 180 < children (Google it), and they put Feynman in his place. Yeah, winning the Putnam is impressive, but not as much as getting a ceiling score on an adult IQ test at the age of 11, nor is the Putnam an IQ test.

Karl Schwarzschild, who famously found the first non-trivial solution to Einstein's field equations, published two papers at the age of 16 and was a prodigy. Wolfgang Pauli is another. Same for Julian Schwinger and Murray Gell-Mann. Last but not least, there's John Von Neumann. This is just physicists; there's prodigies like this for every field.

Here's a recent example of what an IQ >160 looks like:

A dissenting view from the debate on iSteve:

If the 120s IQ figure is right (and I don’t think it is) it would likely be due to the verbal portion of any such test skewing the results. Feynman talked in a rather strange way, almost as if he had learned his own kind of grammar which suited him well enough that he didn’t bother quite learning the standard kind.

Yeah, ‘verbal loaded test’. I read that argument a zillion times. He’s moving goal posts. Well, by that argument, Feynman has an IQ of 300 on a calculus loaded test. That’s not how IQ works. You can’t just pick the part of the test the person does the best at and say it’s his IQ.

Feynman was smart, but not of the likes of child prodigies who attend college at the age of 12. But 125 is pretty good though. That’s nothing to sneeze at. And it’s probably the lower-end of a possible score of 140 on a better designed test, which is 1/400 of the general population and approximately three standard deviations above the mean. It’s just that Feynman, as good at physics as he was, didn’t exhibit the accelerated adolescent development characteristic of prodigies and wunderkinds who do have verifiable scores above 160.

New: Part 2, goes into further detail.

Comments are closed.