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How Smart Are Brain Surgeons?

That brain surgeons are very smart has found its way into a rarified spot in our culture: it’s become a cliché so obvious that no one doubts it. It’s right up there with rocket scientists.

Alas, what we cognitive psychologists know about both these professions, but especially brain surgeon, is that you don’t really have to be very smart to be successful.

Ben Carson is a classic example. Every issue that comes up on the campaign trail reveals his lack of serious intellectual chops. He’s not curious. He’s devoted little thought to complex issues and routinely accepts the most paltry evidence as somehow affirming some crackpot idea he got in his head — like his conclusion that prisons make people gay (yeah, he said this) or that Islamic principles are unconstitutional (said this too).

His cleaving to creationism demonstrates a serious lack of intellectual ability. To be a creationist and a doctor is professional oxymoronism. Medicine is founded on principles of evolutionary biology. Every element in it from the underlying neuro-physiological mechanisms that operate within the body to the models that provide insights into how to develop newer and more effective procedures is based on Darwinian mechanisms. To ignore these is, in a word, embarrassing.

Carson is a Seventh Day Adventist, an adherent of a fundamentalist, biblical literalist faith that butts its head against modern science and is utterly discoordinate with modern medicine and contemporary science.

And, it’s not just religion. He shows the same failure to test reality when it comes to climate change. Again, the data are overwhelming. Only the truly stupid or willfully ignorant can deny the reality of climate change or fail to grasp our role in it.

Similar analyses apply to his total lack of empathy for women and his failure to understand, even remotely, the rather simple notion that everyone gets to make the decisions about their own bodies.

Of course, no one doubts that he has remarkable surgical skills. He was one of the finest brain surgeons in the country, perhaps the world. He graduated from the best schools and his academic record was outstanding. He is also circumspect, careful in his manner of speaking and almost everyone who knows him likes him.

But … is he smart, “brain-surgeon” smart?

By now I hope you’re seeing the problem here. “Smart” isn’t just a simple thing. Intelligence isn’t a single entity. IQ tests, for example, hide a host of complications, buried under a single number. We’ve seen this before when we looked at Ted Cruz, another supposedly high-IQ guy who routinely makes statements that only a truly stupid person could make.

So, how could Carson, this not-very-smart guy, end up being one of the world’s top brain surgeons? The answer is that you don’t have to be all that smart to be a brain surgeon. In fact, you don’t have to be very smart to be a doctor. You do need scholastic skills, the ability to read a book, absorb its contents in a superficial way and be ready to answer questions about the material.

You need motivation and a certain stick-to-it quality because there’s a lot of information you need to commit to memory. But it’s not complicated stuff. It’s mainly material about anatomy, biochemistry, neurophysiology, structural features of bodies, basic biophysics. Anyone with a slightly above average academic intelligence, good social skills and high levels of motivation can pull it off.

To become a top surgeon you also need some other abilities, among them excellent sensory-motor skills, patience, a calm demeanor and, importantly, an ego and a deep belief in your own abilities. But you do not need to be very smart. You do not need to be creative or curious. You can pull it off without a probing intellect; have little interest in searching for new knowledge or new ways to understand issues. You don’t have to have a willingness to rethink issues when the evidence calls for it or an uncomfortablness with ambiguity and contradition and a desire to repair it.

Andy Borowitz, political town-crier had an excellent piece of political satire on Carson saying, in a much more amusing way, what I’m trying to get across here. Go read it.

Oh, in case you’re wondering, you don’t have to be all that smart to be a rocket scientist either.

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