How Smart is Elon Musk?

Scott reviews comments in regard to Elon Musk’s latest biography. Not surprisingly, a lot of the discussion focusses on Elon’s IQ.

For some reason many people, including those who otherwise believe strongly in HBD, get irked at the notion that Elon may not in fact be the smartest person in the world, or as smart as top mathematicians or top theoretical physicists. The ‘g factor’ suddenly goes out the window when assessing Musk’s IQ, because he is so successful at business and so wealthy, so he must also be among the smartest too in ways that may not be as quantifiable in an objective sense. Which is contradictory because IQ is supposed to be objective and rank ordered. The idea of distilling one’s lifetime achievement and potential to a number which falls along a rank-ordered hierarchy understandably rubs some people the wrong way as being too reductive, and is why IQ is a controversial topic.

This does not mean that ‘math people’ are always smarter than managers or entrepreneurs, but if one was to create a hierarchy of ‘smartest people in the world’, and given that IQ tests max out at around 135 or so, we would logically start with math people, as those skills are rare and g-loaded. This is why proctored IQ tests have a quantitative section, but not a ‘business section’ or a ‘management section’. Going by SAT scores, the expected IQ of a computer science major is higher compared to a business major, as evidence of some skills being more g-loaded than others or having a higher cognitive threshold:

From Scott’s blogpost, regarding Elon’s SAT scores:

The new Elon Musk biography says that Musk’s SAT scores were 730 math, 670 verbal. This are good-but-not-great scores now, but epursimuove reminds us that Musk took the SATs before 1995, when the scores were calculated differently and high scores were harder to get. Based on the pre-1995 norms, 1400 puts him at the 99.1st percentile of test-takers. But only a third of students took the SAT during 1994

Good not great? I beg to differ. These are great scores, especially under the ‘old’ pre-1995 scoring system, as he mentions.

But now we know Elon’s SAT scores, and they are high, not surprisingly, suggesting he is indeed a smart person, as we all expected. But to say he is among the smartest in the world, such as in the top 100-1000, requires a higher burden of proof. He could be as smart as a Field’s Medalist, but if I was going to wager money, it would be on the latter. And that is perfectly fine. It is not an indictment on Elon or his brilliance. I am sure Elon’s contributions to society and the economy are far greater than that of the medalist. But we’re talking about something objective, like height, not who is the best basketball player ever, in which all players tend to be tall but ‘goodness’ is still subjective.

Another problem is it’s hard to disentangle domain-specific knowledge from IQ at the high-end of technical ability. Someone with a lot of domain-specific knowledge in a technical field will seem smarter than he or she actually is. Domain knowledge is a combination of crystalized IQ and a ‘Mathew Effect’, in that success at one endeavor tends to beget success at subsequent ones. Elon had many notable successes, but these are not independent events. The wealth he accumulated from PayPal helped him with Space-X, for example, which then helped with Tesla and later companies.

But Elon is a genius when it comes to marketing. He’s always been on Twitter, and now owns it. The ‘Twitter Blue’ program is more successful than I originally predicted. I assumed many users would balk at having to pay, but I am seeing blue checkmarks everywhere indicating users who ponied up the $8/month (desktop) or $11/month (for Android or iPhone). It’s not uncommon for comments to be almost entirely full of verified users , not just a handful as I assumed.

Elon’s genius was capitalizing on the brand of the checkmark, which has always been coveted as a signifier of status. And then making it available to everyone at a low cost. Pre-Elon, obtaining a checkmark was expensive and time-consuming, often requiring a PR firm and or spending a lot of money on advertising on Twitter. In addition to a blue checkmark, Elon promised new features for verified users, such as increased visibility of posts due to verified accounts having priority in comment rankings compared to non-verified users.

But he was also shewed in eliminating some old features and making them paid, so users are effectively paying for the same stuff they enjoyed for free. Second, because there are so many verified users now, the ‘increased visibility’ has become meaningless and diluted, whereas in the past, checkmarks were uncommon and stood out, not one of many in a sea of checkmarks. Thus, Twitter Blue has become the participation trophy of Twitter. $8 isn’t a particularly high threshold for verification, and there is no ID requirement, so even fake people like “@booger444” can now be verified alongside actually notable people. Elon was smart in figuring out that users would not catch on to the fact that ‘checkmarks for all’ is like having no checkmark at all.

So to bring this back, how smart is he? In terms of a numerical IQ value or percentile, who knows. I would say pretty damn smart, but of everything about him, his IQ is probably the least important thing about him, yet people seem to care a lot and get defensive at the possibility he may not be the smartest person alive.

1 comment

  1. The most popular and worshipped celebrities like Taylor Swift have fantastic communications and self-expression talents, but their IQs, while high, are probably not in the top 1000. Not even Oprah’s.

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