Brain surgeons and rocket scientists are not brighter than others

That excellent comedy show That Mitchell and Webb produced this sketch.

It turned out that this sketch inspired some researchers to investigate whether rocket scientists and brain surgeons were smarter in general than other people. The answer is no.

It may not be rocket science, but researchers have found aerospace engineers and brain surgeons are not necessarily brighter than the general population.

Researchers examined data from an international cohort of 329 aerospace engineers and 72 neurosurgeons who completed 12 tasks online using the Great British Intelligence Test (GBIT) from the Cognitron platform, as well as answering questions around their age, sex and levels of experience in their speciality.

The researchers said the study was, in part, carried out to lay to rest the question of whether one of the professions had the intellectual upper hand – a tension made famous by the Mitchell and Webb sketch in which a swaggering neurosurgeon is slapped down by an aerospace expert who says: “Brain surgery … it’s not exactly rocket science is it?”

However, the team found few differences between the cognitive abilities of aerospace engineers and neuroscientists, although the results suggest the former had higher scores for attention and mental manipulation – such as rotating objects in one’s head – while neurosurgeons showed higher scores in semantic problem solving – such as definitions of rare words.

“Essentially what we think it shows is that everyone has a range of skills, some people are better at some things and other people are better at other things, and it is very difficult to be better in everything across the board,” said Aswin Chari, a neurosurgical trainee at Great Ormond Street hospital and an author of the study.

Referencing the two professions in the study, Chari added: “It is not that they are better at everything, but they are better at certain things that make them good at what they do.”

It may therefore be best to ditch rocket science and brain surgery idioms for phases like “it’s a walk in the park”, added the researchers.

This perception that the sketch parodies is pretty common. When people ask me what I do as a career and I tell them that I am a theoretical physicist, many of them look impressed and will even openly say that I must be very smart. I quickly dissuade them because I have always been leery of the idea that ‘smartness’ is some kind of property that can be measured on a linear scale and used to compare people. Furthermore, the idea that because one works in a particular field, that indicates that one is smarter in general than other people has always seemed dubious. It may well be true that one has more knowledge in some narrow areas and also have some technical skills that are not widespread, but that is about it. Even those are usually because one has spent a lot of time developing that knowledge and skills, not necessarily because one has some innate cognitive abilities.

The whole debate about what inspires someone to devote their whole lives to mastering something does not seem to me to be very fruitful. The spark may be due to something innate or it may be due to some early influences such as teachers, family, friends, etc. or it may be both. We may never know. But there is no question that mastery requires a lot of work.


  1. robert79 says

    I teach applied maths, most of my students aim to work in industry.
    An analogy I’ve occasionally used when faced with the “rocket science” stance is:

    Back when I was a PhD student, one of my professors was an expert (possibly the world’s lone expert) in using “topological techniques to study fourth order elliptic partial differential equations.”

    He could solve one **very specific** kind of problem… he could solve it very well, but if you work in industry and you can solve only one problem, then you get fired after you solve it. That’s not very smart!

    Better is to know lots of techniques fairly well, so that you become the person that people go to when they have a problem and need to know “how do I / can you, solve this?”

  2. StonedRanger says

    My younger brother is neither a brain surgeon nor a rocket scientist, he is however smarter than almost everyone around him. If you dont believe me, just ask him, he will be happy to tell you all about it. And no, sadly, there is no sarcasm in this comment.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    I haven’t met very many rocket scientists, but the ones I do know prefer to identify themselves as “auxiliary tank fuel pump telemetry specialist” or some (hundreds of) equivalent position(s).

    Anyone who claims to know the full science of rocketry is either a supergenius or a liar. (Shut up, Elon and Donald!)

  4. says

    Rob Grigjanis @2:

    My areas of incompetence far outnumber my areas of competence.

    That’s the other (the good) end of the Dunning-Kruger effect talking.

  5. larpar says

    The radiation paradoxes series have told me that I’m not a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist…….or a theoretical physicist. : )

  6. Katydid says

    Interesting study. Of course, people whose strengths lie in one area who also have the opportunity and discipline to pursue maximizing those strengths are going to excel in that area.

    This study is also worrisome, because it’s likely going to be written about for the masses as, “People like Stephen Hawking? They’re no smarter than you and me! He was so stupid he didn’t even know how to WALK, hurr-durr!”

    At least in the USA, there’s a centuries-old tradition of not valuing education or hard mental work. Alexandre Detoqueville wrote about it the early 1830s. I noticed that when I was raising my kids in the 1990s, when every barely-graduated-high-school, stay-at-home-mommy insisted that they were the equivalent of a doctor because they could wash and bandage a scraped knee, they were the equivalent of a Michelin-starred chef because they could make mac-and-cheese out of a box, they were a supreme financial manager because they kept a checkbook, and they were better than any teacher in school because they read Hop on Pop to their kids when they were small.

    Spend any time on the interwebz and you’ll find people insisting they know any number of people who display greater-than-average learning or mental abilities, but they’re *too stupid to tie their own shoes*, hurr-durr!

    Funny how that never seems to apply to people who work hard and excel in sportzballz. You never hear that so-and-so was the greatest running back ever, but too stupid to call for a pizza.

  7. steve oberski says

    During a commencement speech at Andrews University in Michigan in 1998, Carson stated that he believed that the pyramids of Giza were created by the biblical figure Joseph to store grain, despite the fact that the story of Joseph is set in the time of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, five centuries after the pyramids of Giza were built. When questioned about it again in 2015, he stood by his original assertion.

    And then there is this brain surgeon.

  8. Marshall says

    You would think there would at least be a correlation between people with advanced degrees and intelligence, and that this would show up in this study. Interesting that that’s not the case.

  9. Ice Swimmer says

    A very tangential question:

    Do chemists/chemistry students and physicists/physics students have special epithets for each other in the English-speaking world? In Finnish, a chemist is kemisti and physicist is fyysikko, but they (the dear enemies as they describe their relationship) often call each other keemikko and fysisti (or pHysisti in writing).

  10. garnetstar says

    Rob @2, me too.

    @14, no, chemists don’t have anything like that in English. We have an inferiority complex about physicists: what they do is so cosmic, while chemists are notably boring. Mano, physicists picked up the mantle of super-intelligence after the atomic bomb: people who could come up with it were considered devastatingly (ha ha) smart.

    As for intelligence, you sure don’t need it to be a chemist. Being good at chemistry means that thinking about those topics is easy for you, while you may be as thick as a wall (and often are) about everything else.

    Rocket scientists (engineers) are notoriously not the brightest bulbs on the tree, as a group, and surgeons have that rep also. They don’t like to think, they like to cut. At my friend’s med school, a little rhyme was common knowledge: “A surgeon’s hands are quick and nimble, a surgeon’s brain could fit in a thimble.” They are known as the pro athletes of medicine.

  11. garnetstar says

    There was a conversation between Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins in The Double Helix: Crick was bemoaning how difficult the DNA-structure problem was, and Wilkins consoled him by saying that, never mind, if all the good scientific problems were easily solved, there’d be none left to research, and the scientists would all have to become doctors or engineers.

  12. seachange says

    The reason physicists might not be smart is that they created something as horrible as the atomic bomb because -military and political- folks asked them to. The temptation to go durpty herr I cain’t figure this out even if I did figure it out to this kind of person would have been very tempting to me.

  13. wubbes says

    I work for an engineering company that has a niche market in very high tech one-off nuclear research facilities. We were working on the engineering design for a university upgrading its Rare Isotope Accelerator. (Accelerators like the ones at CERN or Fermilab accelerate sub-atomic particles like protons and smash them into each other. A rare isotope accelerator accelerates heavy nuclei like gold and smashes them into each other.) We were working on a thorny problem with the scientists who would actually run the facility and the lab director said (he was German, imagine a German accent) “Come on guys, zis is not rocket science!” I thought “No, it’s theoretical high-energy nuclear physics.”

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