Scientists Are Not That Smart

Photo: Corbis

The popular image of scientists is of a tiny, elite (and possibly deranged) minority of people engaged in esoteric pursuits. One of the three most common responses when I tell somebody I’m a physicist is, “You must be really smart. I could never do that.” (The other responses are, “I hated that when I took it in high school/college,” and, “Can you explain string theory to me?” This goes a long way toward explaining why physicists have a reputation as lousy conversationalists.) 

While the idea that scientists are uniquely smart and capable is flattering to the vanity of nerds like me, it’s a compliment with an edge. There’s a distracting effect to being called “really smart” in this sense — it sets scientists off as people who think in a way that’s qualitatively different from “normal” people. We’re set off even from other highly educated academics — my faculty colleagues in arts, literature, and social science don’t hear that same “You must be really smart” despite the fact that they’ve generally spent at least as much time acquiring academic credentials as I have. The sort of scholarship they do is seen as just an extension of normal activities, whereas science is seen as alien and incomprehensible.

A bigger problem with this awkward compliment, though, is that it’s just not true. Scientists are not that smart — we don’t think in a wholly different manner than ordinary people do. What makes a professional scientist is not a supercharged brain with more processing power, but a collection of subtle differences in skills and inclinations. We’re slightly better at doing the sort of things that professional scientists do on a daily basis — I’m better with math than the average person — but more importantly, we enjoy those activities and so spend time honing those skills, making the differences appear even greater.

To turn things around a bit, I’m a decidedly mediocre carpenter. Not because I lack any of the physical or mental skills needed for the task — I can and have built things out of wood for home improvement projects. I’m not good at it, though, because I don’t particularly enjoy the process and so don’t seek out opportunities to engage in carpentry. I can do it if I have to, but my work is slow and plodding, and when I try to speed it up, I make mistakes and end up needing to start over. Professional woodworkers or even serious hobbyists, who do enjoy those tasks and put in the time practicing them, are vastly better at the essential tasks. This is not merely physical, either — they’re also better at the mental aspect of the job, figuring out how to accomplish a particular construction goal, which is where I generally fail most dramatically. But you’ll never hear anyone say, “A carpenter? You must be really smart.”

Inclination isn’t the entire story, to be sure — innate talents play a role. I love the game of basketball and spend a good deal of time playing in a lunchtime pickup game with other faculty, staff, and students. No amount of practice is going to make me an NBA player, though, because I lack the necessary physical gifts — I’m considerably taller than average (about six feet six), but not especially quick or agile. I struggle to keep up with the players on the team at Union College and wouldn’t stand a chance against a big-time college player. Love of the game only takes you so far.

At the same time, though, my lack of elite physical ability doesn’t preclude my playing basketball for several hours a week. And nobody thinks it all that odd for a bunch of middle-aged professors to devote some time to running around playing games; there are even some social advantages to participating in sports on an amateur level. Nobody expects us to say, “Well, I can’t make it to the NBA, so I’ll never touch a basketball again.”

And yet, that’s just what happens with science, which is the biggest problem with the perception of scientists as really smart. The incorrect image of science as something only a few innately brilliant individuals can handle leads many people to give up on science entirely once they decide they can’t make a career of it. There’s no social advantage to having an amateur interest in science; in some contexts, it’s even a liability, marking you out as a nerd. This problem is unique to science — nobody thinks it odd for people who can’t make a career in academia to continue to read literature, go to art museums, or take an active interest in politics and history. In many professional contexts, it’s considered surprising if you don’t do any of those things, but science is something you’re expected to give up unless you’re “really smart” enough to make it your career.

Ironically, though, even people who consciously reject the thought of doing science themselves spend a good deal of time acting like scientists. The scientific process is a major component of any number of popular hobbies and pastimes. Whatever you do to unwind, it almost certainly draws on the same bag of mental tricks used by successful scientists. If you collect stamps or coins as a hobby, you’re making use of the same impulse that helped Charles Darwin develop the theory of evolution. If you play bridge or other card games, you use the same inference process that led Vera Rubin and other astronomers to the realization that the universe contains vast amounts of stuff we can’t see directly. And if you do crossword puzzles to relax, you’re using the cross-checking and deduction that led the founders of quantum mechanics to develop the strangest and most successful theory in the history of physics.

Whether you realize it or not, you have an inner scientist. You’re using the process of science every day, even if you don’t do science for a living. In the same way that amateur athletes blow off steam by playing the occasional game of basketball, nonscientists unwind by using scientific thinking in the pursuit of fun and relaxation. Knowing this, I hope, will inspire you to make some more conscious use of your inner scientist, both to better understand science and to more effectively pursue your other interests.

Excerpted from Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist by Chad Orzel. Available from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014. 

Scientists Are Not That Smart