wellingtongoose (wellingtongoose) wrote,

Sherlock, IQ and the Concept of Intelligence

I got asked a very interesting question (I am paraphrasing) –

“What do you think Sherlock’s IQ is? And is Sherlock antisocial because of his intelligence?”

(credit: YuriOokino)

I personally find BBC Sherlock’s portrayal of “genius” inconsistent with real life. What Sherlock is portraying not so much a typical “genius” but a typical example of a man who has failed to emotionally mature (Explaining Sherlock’s Sherlockness). His intelligence might have compounded his maturation but so did a myriad of other factors.

In this meta I attempt to answer the questions and as usual there is not a straight forward answer. I am going to explore:

  • Real life geniuses compared with Sherlock

  • Why IQ tests cannot tell you very much about anyone's intelligence

  • Intelligence is unlikely to be the reason why Sherlock is Sherlock.

The Representation of Genius

Genius has no scientific definition. It is merely used to describe someone who has exceptional ability in one area or multiple areas. What society defines as genius depends very much on the values and norms held in that society and how history chooses to view individuals.
One particular thing I do not like about BBC Sherlock is its portrayal of “genius”.

Florey & Chain (the men who made the drug penicillin), Semmelweis (the doctor who has saved and is still saving millions of lives – I highly recommend you look him up), Einstein, Da Vinci etc. were all modest men with modest lives who were dedicated their intellectual pursuits. They had confidence in their ideas but historical records do not show an overwhelming sense of arrogance a la Sherlock. In the same way the vast majority of leading figures in science, academia, medicine etc. are well adjusted, normal people. They are incredibly good at what they do but the vast majority of them have the emotional maturity to understand that being intelligent does not make you better than everyone else. People like Sherlock are the exceptions and not the rule.

A small minority are maladjusted, socially awkward, arrogant in the extreme but this is part of their personality and not necessarily a consequence of their intelligence.  I would argue that having a high intelligence does not make you more or less likely to become like Sherlock. I do not think we can make assumptions about Sherlock’s life or why he behaves as he does purely from his intelligence.

What is Intelligence? And Does Sherlock Have it?

Intelligence as a concept is very hard to define. I personally have not studied intelligence in any great depth because it is much more within the realms of psychology and not psychiatry.

One of the most widely cited theories on Human Intelligence is the Cattell-Horn-Carroll theory that divides intelligence into many different aspects. Most importantly it puts forwards the theory of fluid intelligence – the broad ability to reason, form concepts and solve unfamiliar problems. Other forms of intelligence include crystallized intelligence – the breadth and depth of acquired knowledge as well as specific intelligences such as reading and writing, short-term memory, long-term memory etc.

Everyone has some degree of fluid intelligence – hence why humans are deemed to be intelligent life forms – regardless of your level of education or life experience.

Because there is no set definition for what intelligence is – it becomes very hard to actually compare people.

The big problem in psychometrics (the study and quantification of human intelligence) is that all the methods we have to measure intelligence are overwhelmingly confounded by education, culture, and society and life experience. When you compare two individuals are you really comparing their intelligence or just their level of education/social status?

Additionally intelligence is so often thought of as pertaining to logic and problem solving, but surely the great artists and musicians were also highly intelligent people even if they would have scored rather poorly on verbal or non-verbal reasoning tests.

Can you compare Mozart’s intelligence to that of Einstein’s? Who is more intelligent? Mozart probably would not have scored spectacularly on any IQ test – they contain vast amounts of non-verbal reasoning, but Einstein probably would have been a certified “genius” had he taken an IQ test because his work uses a great deal of abstract thought and non-verbal reasoning.

In the same way is Sherlock (or the Nobel Prize winner for physics) really that much more intelligent than the rest of the human population? They are both very good in what they do, but does that necessarily translate to an exceptionally high degree of fluid intelligence rather than a result of their dedication and training?

The IQ test says you’re stupid

Currently the most popular way of measuring human intelligence through IQ tests of which there are many types.

IQ tests as a measure of intelligence are fundamentally flawed.

Binet (the man whose name is one half of the most popular IQ test in the world: Stanford-Binet) devised his intelligence test not for the benefit of societies like Mensa but to identify patients with what he called “subnormal intelligence”. The first IQ test was therefore devised as a tool for psychiatrists to help patients rather than for society to quantify and compare normal individuals.

IQ test are one of the many tools used by psychiatrists identify patients who have learning disabilities and hence provide them with appropriate medical/social aid. It is by no means the only method we use to identify patients with learning difficulties.

The main flaws (and this by no means an exhaustive list) with IQ tests for comparing people within the range of “normal” are:

They overwhelmingly favour people who have a “scientific/logical” world view.
If your brain happens to work in a different way – you are at a distinct disadvantage. For example if you asked a hunter gather what links a wolf and a rabbit – he/she would tell you that the wolf chases the rabbit, but the correct answer on a IQ test would be that they are both mammals.  The hunter gather is not less intelligent – he/she merely has a different world view. They do not care whether the animals are within the same biological classification; it is much more relevant for them to understand the predator-prey relationship.

They test a great deal of factual knowledge (particularly in IQ tests that include verbal reasoning).

IQ tests make many inherent assumptions about the knowledge people should have obtained and make no allowance for people who have different educational trajectories than the norm. For example, verbal reasoning does not so much test your intelligence (as pertains to abstract thought, concept formation, problem solving) as it does your vocabulary. If you’ve never seen this word before how are you going to do the question? Vocabulary is very closely linked to educational status and therefore it can be both socially and educationally biased.

They are exams – and they reward good exam technique as much as any other exam.

If you are good at taking exams – your IQ score would be artificially higher than it technically should be simply because you have good exam technique, time management etc. Intelligence does not come into play in this; it is merely training and experience. It has been shown that with even a short amount of training and practice it is possible to increase one’s IQ score by 10-20 points. Repeated IQ tests have shown that their results can be consistent in the same individual but only if they have not practised for the test in between retakes.  However, the significance attached to these few IQ points can often be larger than the results of any other single exam. Many lay people believe that the IQ score is an indicator of overall functionality in life rather than a very specific test to assess some very specific and not necessarily useful  skills.

IQ test assume that intelligence is normally distributed in a symmetrical manner about the mean (i.e. in a bell curve).

Just because human height appears to have a normal distribution does not mean one can assume human intelligence is normally distributed. IQ tests are devised so that individual raw test scores can be forced into a normal distribution of IQ points with 100 points as the mean. IQ score graph is an artificial construct rather than a true measurement. Actual raw test scores for IQ tests do not show a truly symmetrical graph - the shape of graph depends very much which social group you use as your test subject. This may distort differences by dragging out one end and compression another.

How to be a Certified Genius

Oddly enough on the Stanford-Binet IQ scoring system any score over 145 is considered to be “genius”. If you score >145 you are a certified genius.

I am not going into just how ridiculous this is. If Sherlock doesn’t score >145 does it make him any less brilliant?

Above 2 standard deviations from the mean (100 IQ points) the IQ tests scores lose what little meaning they had in the first place. Scores of over 130 do not mean that you are over 30% more intelligent than the average human – it is not a linear scale.

At the very high levels there may be few real raw marks between say 145 and 180. Thus every mark becomes worth more in terms of IQ score. A few marks on one test should not be able to elevate anyone from being normal to genius! If you are careless/distracted/just bad at taking exams, this could the difference to whether you are genius or just bright.

And yet much significance on these high IQ scores. I have nothing against High IQ societies – their purpose is in the title but in terms of schooling, it is true some children who cause trouble in school are incredibly bright and need more stimulation but so what? Shouldn’t the schools be providing stimulation to suit each child’s need without them being certified a “genius” first? Do teachers need a reason to intellectually challenge their pupils?

All a high IQ score can tell you is that this person is good at the narrow range of skills the IQ test assesses – it is inappropriate to extrapolate beyond that. It is also highly inappropriate to stream people into occupations/pupils into sets based on their IQ.

The Emotional Burden of being Intelligent


I want to take this opportunity to point out that people with high intelligence are no more or less likely to develop emotional problems.

Correlation does not equate to causation. Just because Sherlock might be highly intelligent and have poor social skills does not mean we can assume intelligence is the cause. If this was the case, it is equally valid to say that poor social skills makes you more intelligent, which frankly it does not.

In terms of social skills: social status, educational environment and home life are all much more important.

High IQ in childhood correlates very well with both life expectancy and mental wellbeing in later life, which for people who believe in the IQ shows that intelligence may even protect you from emotional problems. However we need to remember the IQ is also a reflection of the child’s social-economic status. Children born into richer families are more likely to stay rich – particularly in country like the UK in 2012.

So I don’t think Sherlock is Sherlock because he is far more intelligent than the rest of the human population.

I think he was viciously bullied at school because he was utterly tactless and had no social skills. He was going to be a target for bullying even if he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the box. Being smart is just one of the myriad of excuses that children use to bully each other. Spots, weight, rich, poor, skin colour, accent etc are just some of the others. Being bullied for your intelligence is no more or less hurtful than being ostracized because of your appearance or family circumstances. I do not agree that being hated for your intelligence is worse because there is nothing you can do about it. Most of the things that bullies pick on are things you cannot change about yourself – and even if you could, they would find something else in time.

Sherlock still has limited social skills, and very little motivation to improve them. He frankly doesn’t care very much that his remarks upset, offend or hurt people. Mycroft on the other hand is on par with Sherlock and seems to have a perfectly good set of social graces. For more information please read Explaining Sherlock’s Sherlockness.

And what about John – he might not be brilliant at detecting but is he less intelligent than Sherlock? After all detection is Sherlock’s comfort zone and not John’s. Should Sherlock ever decide to spend a few days attempting to do John’s job do you think he would actually be any better at being a doctor than John is at being a detective? Personally I think Sherlock would make an awful doctor – he has the emotional sensitivity of a tabloid newpaper.

Why is being able to handle your own and other people’s emotions not seem as an integral part of human intelligence? It is very important in real life, much more so than being able to logically predict the next picture in a sequence. In terms of emotions John is so much more adept than Sherlock has ever shown himself to be.

I really feel that John doesn’t get the intellectual credit he deserves in the series – I really want to see him in his comfort zone, doing what he does best when he is awake (without having to cope with Sherlock’s shenanigans at the same time).

Sherlock vs People in General


To answer the question posed in the beginning I think Sherlock would do very well on any IQ test. Firstly he’s evidently had a good education, which will give him a distinct advantage. He also has a very logical approach to everything in life and the IQ test doesn’t examine his emotional maturity so he really can’t lose, it plays right to his strengths.

Like I said before, whether Sherlock scores 100, 130, 145 or 180 hardly matters. He’s smart – do we need to know how much smarter he is in comparison to the rest of the population? Even if we wanted to we couldn’t possibly quantify it anyway with an IQ test.

My problem with Sherlock is that he thinks he is so much better than the rest of humanity just become he’s good at a narrow range of things. Yes, he is brilliantly perceptive, amazing at deduction, awesome at solving logical conundrums but does that make him superior to the rest of us mere mortals?

We should admire Sherlock for his dedication and pursuit of perfection in his chosen field, his brilliance at detection and observation but there is no reason to believe the delusion that he feeds himself – being intelligent does not make you better than everyone else and it certainly doesn’t give you any excuse to treat the people around you badly.
Tags: character: john watson, character: sherlock holmes, meta: john watson, meta: sherlock holmes

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.