The phrases “It’s not rocket science” and “It’s not brain surgery” are commonly used to denote simple tasks that don’t require all that much thinking. The implication is that people who actually work in these fields are particularly intellectually gifted. Not so fast though, notes a new study that found aerospace engineers and neurosurgeons score on par with the general population on intelligence tests.
“We found, using a validated intelligence test that there was actually not much difference between the intelligence scores in rocket scientists, brain surgeons and the general population. This suggests that these phrases may put neurosurgeons and rocket scientists on an unnecessary pedestal,” Chari Aswin, an academic neurosurgical trainee at the University College London and the research lead for the neurosurgical charity Brainbook, told ZME Science.
In order to settle the debate of which of the two phrases is the most deserving for denoting trivial tasks, the researchers decided to assess and compare the intelligence of 329 aerospace engineers and 72 neurosurgeons with 18,257 members of the general public.
The testing was conducted on multiple cognitive domains, including emotional discrimination, working memory, spatial intelligence, and motor control. As such, these were no ordinary IQ tests but rather a battery of tests part of the Great British Intelligence Tests (GBIT) that are designed to measure and differentiate aspects of cognitive abilities more finely.
The GBIT has been completed online by more than 250,000 British people thanks to a successful public outreach campaign spearheaded by BBC Two’s Horizon program. Previously, data from unprecedented mass intelligence testing revealed some fascinating and counterintuitive insights. For instance, scientists found that people who take part in brain training gain very little advantage in their intelligence. However, those who regularly play video games seem to have an obvious edge when it comes to spatial intelligence and attention.
Since the GBIT had been completed by so many people, it provided an excellent opportunity for reliably comparing various cognitive characteristics between people of varying backgrounds, which in this case was their profession. Potentially influential factors such as years of experience (in aerospace or neurosurgery) and gender were taken into account in the analysis and adjusted accordingly.
“Classical IQ tests suggest that they measure one single measure of intelligence. However, the developers of GBIT (who were part of our study) think that intelligence is much more complex and cannot be reported as just one score. The individual domains we have measured are all distinct from each other and, in the GBIT, they found that most people have a range of abilities, being better at some tests and worse at others – this is different from some people being great at all tests and others being bad at all the test,” Aswin said, explaining why didn’t opt for typical IQ tests in this particular instance.
Long story short, aerospace engineers and neurosurgeons were found to be equally matched across most cognitive domains, with two notable exceptions: rocket scientists had slightly better mental manipulation and attention abilities while neurosurgeons showed better semantic problem-solving abilities.
But the most important finding was that both neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers had scores within the range of those in the general population, leading the authors of the new study to conclude that the two professions are unrightfully put on a pedestal. A phrase such as “It’s a walk in the park” might be more appropriate to refer to tasks or concepts that are easy, they added.
“I think that professionals become good at their job through specific training in specific skills that are relevant. For example, neurosurgeons may require microsurgical skills, communication skills and a certain amount of determination but the results of our study show that, in general, the range of cognitive skills is no different to the general population,” Aswin.
The findings are more important than meets the eye. From an early age, school children’s desire to pursue a certain career is heavily influenced by stereotypes and various subjective perceptions. STEM fields like neurosurgery and aerospace engineering are facing enormous challenges recruiting and maintaining candidates for their workforce, and it is no coincidence that these fields are often seen as “masculine” and “too brainy”.
While there are certainly very gifted individuals working in both fields, whose talents coupled with a strong work ethic catapulted them to excellence, the same argument can be made that just as much talent is squandered perhaps simply because some people didn’t have enough confidence to pursue a STEM career.
“We want to help break down the barriers that might make people think some professions are out of their grasp – particularly in under-represented groups. Of course, highly-skilled people like surgeons and engineers are intelligent but those professions also require a lot of hard work and training which are just as important, and anyone with an interest in those careers should feel able to pursue them, regardless of stereotypes,” Aswin concluded.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.