Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are in the top 1 percent in wealth. What has not been discussed is that both of them are also likely in the top 1 percent in brains. We know that Zuckerberg is because he was identified by a talent search and attended a summer program for gifted youths which means he had to have scored in the top 1 percent (plus he was accepted by and attended Harvard). Chan was valedictorian of her high school, was accepted by and attended Harvard, and then was accepted by and graduated from UCSF medical school which taken together indicate that she is also likely in the top 1 percent in brains.
“I wanna be a billionaire so [freakin’] bad,” sing Bruno Mars and Travie McCoy in their eponymous hit single. They’re hardly the only ones. Americans are as enamored of extreme wealth as they are infuriated by it. Post-Occupy Wall Street, the spotlight shines more starkly than ever on the top 1 percent of earners, a fact not lost on Mars and McCoy, who rap, “And yeah, I’ll be in a whole new tax bracket/ We in recession, but let me take a crack at it.” Whatever one’s political and ideological stance, there is no dispute over the power wielded by the nation’s highest earners.
Yet the national obsession with wealth bypasses another group of elites, who overlap in a critical way with the top 1 percent in income, and who, in the age of big data and relentless globalization are arguably as important in determining the nation’s economic course. This group is the top 1 percent in brains. The world is drowning in data, rendering stellar quantitative skills more critical than ever. The majority of the smartest are those with a demonstrated aptitude for math and spatial reasoning, the cognitive toolkit increasingly in demand in the age of information. Yet ironically, America undervalues math and spatial skills—it is socially acceptable to be bad at math. (Not exactly the case when it comes to reading.) Overlooking the need for basic proficiency in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields and the pedagogical needs of the most gifted students may have dire creative and economic repercussions.
The world is drowning in data, rendering stellar quantitative skills more critical than ever. The majority of the smartest are those with a demonstrated aptitude for math and spatial reasoning, the cognitive toolkit increasingly in demand in the age of information. Yet ironically, America undervalues math and spatial skills—it is socially acceptable to be bad at math. (Not exactly the case when it comes to reading.) Overlooking the need for basic proficiency in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields and the pedagogical needs of the most gifted students may have dire creative and economic repercussions. First, let’s consider how psychometricians and psychologists categorize the cognitive elite. IQ tests are the subject of much mainstream confusion but experts concur that such tests do measure the construct of general intelligence, or “g.” Tests are normed so that a score of 100 represents the average IQ; anyone with a score above 100 is therefore brighter than average. Using the Stanford-Binet IQ scale, people who score 1.5 to just over 2 standard deviations above average (125 to 137 range) are in the top 5 percent to 1 percent of all scorers. (One in 33 people obtains an IQ score of 130, by this scale.) If the top 5 percent are the normal smart, then the top 1 percent are the super smart and the top .01 percent are the scary smart, to borrow the last term from Richard Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes magazine, who has written about the top percentile in both income and brains. This top 1 percent includes large numbers of successful professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and business executives. These outliers reside on the right tail of the distribution curve, and just like the top 1 percent in wealth, the far right tail of ability encompasses a very wide range. The top 1 percent to .01 percent includes people with IQs that range from 137 to 160. Those in this range are in the upper echelons of the STEM professions, such as elite engineers, programmers, or computer science professors, and top lawyers, politicians, journalists and academics who have a more verbal bent. Those who score above 160 are primarily the very smartest mathematicians and physicists, whose success depends to a great deal on their raw mental processing power.
There are actually some people with IQs over 200. One such individual is Terence Tao, a mathematics professor at UCLA who won the Fields Medal, the Nobel Prize of math. At the age of 8, he scored 760 on the SAT-Math subtest. Most people don’t score that high even at age 17. Many of the people who are transforming society, advancing knowledge, and inventing modern culture are in the top 1 percent in intellectual ability. A longitudinal study that I worked on as a graduate student has demonstrated that intellectually talented students in the top 1 percent of ability (the super smart) earn doctorate-level degrees (for example, an M.D., J.D., or Ph.D.) at about 25 times the rate of the general population, and that students in the top .01 percent (the scary smart) earn doctorates at about 50 times the base rate. This Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), led by David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow of Vanderbilt University, found that not only is the number of doctorates earned a function of ability but also that income, number of publications, patents, and even likelihood of tenure at a top university significantly increase as IQ increases.
To be sure, many billionaires are in the top 1 percent of brains. Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin were each identified during adolescence by the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University, and they attended a summer program there, which means they are in the top percentile of intellectual ability. Bill Gates is in the top 1 percent, as was Steve Jobs. Many high-profile nontechies are as well: Stefani Germanotta, a.k.a. Lady Gaga, was enrolled in the same program as Zuckerberg and Brin. Such data exist because every year over 200,000 students participate in talent searches across the country, taking the SAT in the 7th grade instead of the 11th grade. I am a research scientist at the Duke University Talent Identification Program, one of four major centers that perform such outreach.
When it comes to elite performance, there is much evidence that across domains, the most talented outliers, i.e., the 1 percent, contribute disproportionately to the overall field. “Superstars make or break an organization,” states Herman Aguinis of Indiana University at Bloomington. “The ability to identify these elite performers will become even more of a necessity as the nature of work changes in the 21st century.” A recent study coauthored by Aguinis found that among more than 633,000 subjects in four domains, elite performance followed a power-law (or 80/20) distribution, with the performers on the tail dominating in terms of output. By contrast, in a normal “bell-curve,” distribution would describe a “majority rule” in which those of average ability are the most generative in aggregate, as they are the vast majority of the population.
THE SIX BILLION RENMINBI MAN AND HIS BIONIC WOMAN