27 2 / 2013

Sherlock, IQ and the Concept of Genius


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

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

  • The meaning and definitions of human intelligence and genius
  • Why IQ tests are a fundamentally flawed measure of intelligenc
  • Intelligence is unlikely to be the reason why Sherlock is Sherlock. 

Defining Genius

Since the dawn of civilisation people have tried to define and quantify intelligence. Unfortunately intelligence is a concept that is very difficult to fit into a discrete box and thus it is also very difficult to measure precisely because we don’t know exactly what we should be measuring.

It is evident that we all have different strengths and weakness. Defining intelligence is hard, defining what qualifies as “genius” is even harder. To understand the meaning of genius we must first understand how science views intelligence.

In the modern era, many scientists have tried to devise various ways of classifying intelligence. The most widely cited theory is the Cattell-Horn-Carroll of intelligence. This theory divides intelligence into many different types. The two most important types are fluid intelligence and crystalline intelligence. Fluid intelligence is the broad ability to reason, form concepts and solve unfamiliar problems. Crystalline intelligence on the other hand is the breadth and depth of acquired knowledge as well as specific intelligences such as reading and writing, short-term memory, long-term memory. Neither of these two types of intelligence remain constant throughout our lives; with correct training we can increase both our fluid and our crystalline intelligence.

Sherlock evidently has very high fluid and crystalline intelligence but does that make him a genius? 

99% Perspiration


Genius has no scientific definition; it is a term used to describe someone who has exceptional ability in one area or multiple areas. Who is defined as a genius very much depends on society’s attitudes at the time and how society chooses to view history.  Albert Einstein is often held up to as the eminent genius of our times for his ground breaking work in physics and his contributions to the modern world. However there are many other people whose names will be lost to history that have made an even bigger impact on our everyday lives. For example: Dr Semmelweis made a discovery that has saved more lives than other scientific discovery to date and yet hardly anyone has heard of him.

Thomas Edison is famously attributed the quote: “genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration”. The common thing people we think of as geniuses share is ground breaking innovation or creativity. Thomas Edison was completely correct in saying that these amazing breakthroughs are not the results of simply being intelligent, in fact it can be argued that crystalline intelligence had very little to do with classic examples of genius. Scientific breakthrough, inventions and great works of art were produced by sheer hard work with the right inspiration. It is impossible to say that if another person had been given the same opportunities and had the same determination as Einstein, Mozart or Semmelweis, they would have performed just as well, if not better. Therefore it is impossible to compare the “genius” qualities of one person with another. Genius is a title that is bestowed in hindsight and it is a title that remains very subjective in nature.

Whatever people believe about Sherlock’s genius status, one cannot doubt that he is very good at what he does because he puts a great deal of effort into it. 

The IQ test says you’re stupid



(A Condescending Wonker)

Many people have been interested in what Sherlock’s IQ score will be. Although it may be tempting to guess a ball park figure, we must first ask ourselves what an IQ score will actually tell us about Sherlock.

 A very common misconception is that the higher one’s IQ, the more likely one is to be a genius. This idea is no doubt built on the fact that many people believe the IQ test is a good way to measure innate intelligence. The important thing to remember is that science has a very poor grasp of what intelligence actually is and the study of human intelligence is not a popular topic amongst scientists purely because it brings a great deal of negative connotations dating back to the eugenics movement.

The most widely used IQ test: the Stanford-Binet, was actually devised in order to test patient for learning disabilities in the early 20th century. In the medical profession IQ test are helpful in identifying people who need extra support in the community in order to live a healthy and meaningful life. However they are just one of the many assessments that are performed in order to identify the correct type of support for people with learning disabilities. Whilst IQ tests are effective in this particular context, they are not useful for comparing the vast majority of the human population with each other.

A Narrow View


IQ test only assess a very specific subset of skills and to extrapolate a person’s ability in such a narrow area into a defining statement about their own all intelligence is fundamentally flawed. Modern IQ test consists almost entirely of people traditional identified as the core principles of intelligence: verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning and arithmetic. However we know that there are many other forms of intelligence, which are just as important to human function: including social, emotional, musical etc. IQ tests do not allow takers to demonstrate their abilities in these very important areas.

Mozart would most likely have scored a relatively low score on modern IQ tests but he is still widely viewed as one of the eminent geniuses in human history. In contrast Einstein would have scored very highly because his genius lay in abstract reasoning and mathematics. 

Confounded by Education


IQ tests are notoriously biased towards people who have higher social-economic status. This effect is mostly seen in the verbal reasoning component. Verbal reasoning tests the size of a person’s vocabulary rather than their ability to reason and vocabulary size is directly linked to years of education. Additionally, many people forget that IQ tests are tests and ultimate reward people with good exam technique, time management and previous experience of these styles of questions. All of these factors are more likely to be seen in people who have higher education levels and better socio-economic situations.

It is therefore not possible to test a person’s innate intelligence without the result being confounded by their education. 

This confounding effect is the reason why certain disadvantaged ethnic groups generally score lower on IQ tests than more privileged groups. It is impossible to remove or account for all the confounding factors that contribute to the IQ score, which is why the IQ test as a measure of innate intelligence is not a good tool.

Statistical Spread


The Stanford-Binet IQ test was designed so that the average human IQ score would be 100 with a normal distribution (also known as a bell curve) regardless of whether human intelligence is actually distributed in this pattern.

Scientific and medical consensus that in modern IQ tests a score of < 70 is significant for diagnosing learning disability.  This particular threshold is not in itself useful because there are so many confounding factors. This is why there are many other function assessments that take place over a long period of time to assess the possibility of a learning disability in an individual.

In the same why, any IQ threshold for “genius” would be purely artificial and arbitrary in nature. The problem with the IQ test is that at top range of IQs (2 standard deviations away from the mean) there may be very few raw marks to distinguish between an IQ of 130 and an IQ of 180. IQ tests were never designed to separate the “geniuses” from the “merely bright”.

Any normal human being can, with time and practice, improve their IQ score enough to reach a certain threshold, but does that mean that they have become a genius?

The Emotional “Burden” of being Intelligent


One of the key features of Sherlock’s character is that he has issues with socialising with other people. In simple terms he does not play well with the other children. The other key feature is that Sherlock has a high degree of both fluid and crystalline intelligence. However just become these two signature features exists together in Sherlock, doesn’t mean we should automatically assume correlation or causation.

Does high intelligence cause people to be more anti-social?

TV, film and literature are strewn with the stereotypes of awkward anti-social geniuses locked away in their ivory towers, but then the media thrives on stereotypes.

If we think back to the beginning of the essay: high intelligence does not merely mean a high IQ. Many scientists now believe that social and emotion intelligence are very important forms of intelligence that we rarely discuss and hardly ever credit because it is so hard to define and test for. What society views as “highly intelligent” people are often people who fulfill the media stereotype of having very high crystalline intelligence/logic and poor social skills because we have been conditioned to recognise this pattern and call it “intelligence”, when the truth is there is so much more to human intelligence.

I would argue that to be truly “highly intelligent” one needs to have ample ability in many different forms of intelligence, including social and emotional intelligence, creativity and logic. Sherlock does not have a great deal of social or emotional intelligence but we can see that he is gaining both as he develops throughout the series. John, on the other hand, does have both social and emotional intelligence, as well as ample logic and crystalline intelligence (he is a doctor). However as he does not demonstrate a particular signature peak in any one form of intelligence, he is often overlooked by fandom because his intelligence cannot be put into a box.

Sherlock’s anti-social behaviour is unlikely to be due to his signature intelligence. Many people who have the same abilities as Sherlock do not behave as he does. A prime in-universe example is Mycroft, who is more intelligent than Sherlock and yet is fully able to grasp the basic tenants of polite human behaviour. Thus Sherlock’s behaviour is most likely due to something completely different (for more information: The Holmes Brothers, a Psychoanalysis).

Sherlock is clearly an intelligent human being, how intelligent is something that science is ill equipped to quantify, but whether or not Sherlock is a certified genius shouldn’t detract from the fact that he is a fascinating unique character on a dramatic journey of self-discovery. 

However, if anyone is interested: I would say that should someone manage to convince Sherlock to actually put some effort into doing an IQ test: he would score between 140-180 depending on how motivated he was to actually finish the test. 

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