The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Who is a genius?

My last post tried to improve the understanding of what IQ is, but as my long term readers will know, IQ is not entirely what it is taken to be.

I would like you to consider two people. One tested at an IQ of 180 and, in every instance, his or her answer was a model answer, being exactly what was stipulated in the test requirements. The second person scored an IQ of 140. One of them is a genius...who is it?

Most people would have little difficulty in pointing at the person of an IQ of 180 as the genius. Yet, the likelihood is that they are wrong. You see IQ, as stated below is a measure of the speed with which a person can solve problems of a convergent nature - that is problems with one answer. Yet, as I have noted several times in my blog, a genius requires a different skill. A genius must be able to produce new answers, to questions that haven't been answered before. A genius must be able to think of many possibilities and consider their merits to decide the best answer. A genius must be able to ask questions no-one else has asked before. None of these traits are captured by what IQ measures.

I have been a little naughty in my description of these two people, for I have with-held one piece of information. You see the person whose IQ was 140 gave a lot of answers which were reasonable, imaginative, and profound - but were NOT the prefixed answers expected by the test setter. Therefore the individual was marked wrong, for many test items. Yet, the fact is, that the subject's answers were interesting and reasonable and could be argued to be a good answer to the question. The problem with this style of answering is that it is penalized by tests which seek a single answer. What kind of answers are the 140 IQ candidates? They are CREATIVE answers. They are answers that embody conceptual novelty, that show new insight into the problems. This kind of answer is never rewarded by IQ tests. IQ tests seek conformity of thought.

So, even though the IQ 180 candidate got a higher score; this candidate showed conformity of thought, with expectation: there was no deviation from the norm. The IQ 140 candidate showed a lot of originality of thought, all of it penalized by the test format. Who, therefore is the genius? This analysis guides us to understand that the ostensibly lower candidate is showing creativity; the higher one is not. Therefore it is the lower candidate who has revealed the stuff of genius in the way he or she took the test. Yet, the score is lower. This is one major problem in the interpretation of IQ tests. A given person may have a lower score, but actually a higher creativity than another person. The one with the lower score has more chance of a being a genius in these circumstances.

What about someone who gets a very high score but who is a real world genius? This is possible, but ONLY if the person taking the test deliberately answers according to expectation. By this I mean the genius test subject would have to suppress their originality and answer in a way they thought would be expected. If they showed their originality they would lose marks and get a lower score. In this way, IQ tests are biased AGAINST genius, in the sense of its manifestation as creativity.

All that can be said of the highest scorers is that they have proven themselves to be faster than others at problem solving in convergent, closed situations, that don't have open answers. They may be geniuses, but it is likely that most of them will not be - for the reason that creativity is punished by IQ tests, not rewarded.

IQ has a real world importance in allowing us to distinguish who will be a good convergent problem solver - and who would be good in time critical roles. But it does not denote who is a genius. That is much harder to divine.

Obviously different people may arrive at an IQ in different ways. Two people may score 140. One may have answered in perfect conformity to expectation and may be at the limit of their performance. The other may have answered creatively and reduced their score result by 60 points as a result. If his or her creative responses had been accepted as valid, they may have scored an IQ of 200. Generally, no tester will make the effort to distinguish them and decide the matter. In this way, a genius may be overlooked.

The answer to "Who is a genius?" is very difficult. It requires that the creativity of the subjects be measured and not their brute thinking power alone. Brute thinking power, on its own, does not create anything new - though it does answers questions quickly - which in many real life roles is of great importance.

In understanding issues surrounding IQ, genius and giftedness, it is vital to understand what things really mean. As usual, the argument and observations above are my own and I am entirely responsible for their contents, creative and otherwise.

(If you would like to read about Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and two months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, three and Tiarnan, twelve months, please go to: I also write of child prodigy, gifted education, child genius, adult genius, baby genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:55 AM 


Blogger Jason Jones said...

What if a culture does not nurture originality and being creative - is it against genius?

Not only is an IQ test a bad indictator of genius but it seems most educators are too. Most educational systems foster convergent not divergent thinking. Divergent thinkers are generally regarded as difficult. So it would seem "education" doesn't support genius.

5:35 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Jason for your latest post. As always it is interesting to hear your views and questions.

Your initial question merits a full answer, which I think I will do in a formal post, probably tomorrow since I don't have enough time to do it justice at this minute.

I would also agree with your proposition in the last paragraph: education and genius are not best of friends. Again I will give you the full consideration it deserves in a full post.

Though the situation regarding genius is difficult, it is an advance for people to realize that modern testing fails to capture it and open their minds to the people around them - some of whom may be geniuses who have been overlooked.

Best wishes to you in the U.S of A.

7:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your example of the two people assumes that the person who scored 180 due to approved answers hadn't thought of other, creative answers and was only able to think of the approved answers. It is also possible that, like the person who scored 140, he thought of creative answers. But that he knew the testers were looking for "approved" answers and so he chose to give those rather than the creative alternatives he'd come up with because he didn't want to lower his score.

I do agree with your point that IQ tests are woefully unable to measure what is actually going on inside somebody's head. And that genius is generally understood as being able to put things together in a previous unseen way that leads down a new path. Which of course can't be measured by an IQ test because of the constraints of having to provide a known rather than new answer for scoring purposes.

But I think that to a slight extent in your example, you've fallen into the same trap that IQ testers have. This trap is the assumption that if somebody gives X for an answer, then X is the only possible answer that was in their head. An IQ test isn't passive like a cholesterol test. It requires the cooperation of the taker and every result they put down comes from making a decision. IQ testers always assume that part of this decision is to give the tester the "correct" answer and so if anybody puts down an "incorrect" answer, that must be because that was all that was in their heads. It never occurs to the testers that some people are quite anti-authoritarian and will deliberately answer "incorrectly" as a small act of rebellion against being forced to take a cognitive test. You haven't made the particular error, but I think you did make a related error in assuming that if somebody gives all correct/conformist answers, they tyherefore had no "incorrect"/creative answers in their head. They may very well have seen several possible answers and simply chosen the one most likely to be marked "correct" because they are in-tune with what testers expect and want to give themselves as high a score as possible. And so they may be just as creative as the 140 scorer but have no interest in lowered scores for the sake of showing creativity. Similarly, the 140 scorer may have also been aware of "correct"/conformist answers but gave "incorrect"/creative answers because they weren't about to knuckle under to societal expectations for conformity even if they knew how to. A bit anti-authoritarian and contrary.

My spin on your scenarios really is a roundabout way of saying that I agree IQ tests aren't the glass window into the mind that testers think they are. But that the skew can go both ways and creative people can know when to "play along" yet still be creative in other, unscored endeavors.

11:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Woops. My previous post was in error. After reading your entry a second time more carefuly (after posting in passion after a first read) I see that you actually DID allow that the 180 scorer may have thought of alternative creative answers but deliberately didn't put them in the interests of a higher score. So you didn't make the error I thought you did of assuming that the answer given was a perfect reflection of what is going on inside somebody's head. That error is purely confined to the IQ testers (and anybody who thinks that the test results are the whole picture).

Anyhoo, we're in total agreement that IQ tests by their very design are unable to identify creative genius since they identify answers that are already known rather than entirely new answers. Had IQ tests existed centuries ago, Galileo might have been "cognitively disabled" for not getting the right answer to an extremely simple, basic astronomy question even after it was repeatedly explained to him. His insistence on a "wrong" answer about the solar system would have earned him that label.

There are tests which attempt to peg creativity. But they don't do such a hot job either. There is the infamous "think of 30 uses for a paper clip" test which is popular in the US. The bottom line is, tests can only measure what the designers of the tests already know. And genius necessarily is outside the confines of the already known.

BTW, I wish you luck in your efforts to homeschool your son. Permission to do this is granted rather easily in the US and some other countries. It actually gets done by enough people that in some areas there are enough homeschoolers for them to band together and form little co-operative mini-schools. Small groups of children rotate from house to house partaking in the special skills of different sets of parents. Some colleges allow children to sit in on classes. All that makes homeschooling much easier and allows for diversity of teaching and also tailoring programs to the needs of individual children.

12:52 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for your post.

As you, yourself note below, I haven't made the error you supposed.

Kind regards

9:45 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for your clarification of the situation regarding my assumptions or, in fact, lack of them.

I like your example of Galileo being labelled "cognitively disabled" owing to having a different opinion on astronomical matters. That is the situation for every genius, in some way, at some time.

As for homeschooling, thanks for your well wishes. The situation in Singapore is nothing like that of the US. Here homeschooling is effectively non-existent, so rare is it - so there would not be the support from other parents. We are still at the first stage of seeking permission to be allowed to do it, at all.

Best wishes

9:51 AM  
Blogger Amber said...

I read somewhere that one particular IQ test is aimed at testing 'average-ness' and anything above or below the average could never close enough to an actual measure and that the people that used them to test in the spectrum either above or below average "should know better". It might be the same for other IQ tests.. it makes sense to me, but I don't know much about IQ testing.

Good luck to you & your sons! :)


6:52 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

All IQ tests suffer from not being tested on "outliers" - people far from the norm. They can only really test well, people close to the you have said.

Best wishes Amber

11:38 AM  
Blogger Anonymous said...

Hello, Mr.Cawley. I am a 13 year old twice exceptional boy. I found this discussion on IQ very interesting. It also reminds me of myself in certain cases. I remember constantly thinking 'well I know that this is the answer the want, but I think this answer makes more sense' when solving many logical thinking questions and such. But I have trained myself to always answer in the expected manner, as not to hinder my score. I agree on this example, but of course there is the possibility that the 140 scorer got the correct answers, but simply answered slower than the 180 scorer. But of course I understand your intentions with this example, and if these are indeed how they answered the questions, then I completely agree with your labels. The 180 scorer in this case would be the mathematician to aid with the 140 scorer's field equations for his unification theory, so to speak.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes. I like your example of the 180 mathematician and the 140 theorist. Certainly, that situation can happen. The real creative credit would - or should - go to the 140 person, in this example, even though the 180 seems to be "smarter". They are not really. They just have a more conventional way of thinking.

1:05 PM  

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