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Rocket Scientists and Neurosurgeons Aren’t Smarter Than Others, According to Science

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Dec 14, 2021

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Image Credit: MIT

If you’ve ever been chastized for not performing a seemingly simple task that’s “not rocket science,” it’s time to put your insecurities to rest. Turns out, rocket scientists aren’t likely to be more competent in whatever the problem is than you. Nor are brain surgeons, for that matter.

The new study, published in BMJ this week for its lighter Christmas issue, is titled “’It’s not rocket science’ and ‘It’s not brain surgery’—’It’s a walk in the park’: prospective comparative study.” It is named after a famous skit in which a rocket scientist puts a neurosurgeon down saying “Brain surgery … it’s not exactly rocket science is it?”

Researchers reportedly conducted the analysis to lay to rest the debate about which of the two professions have the intellectual upper hand — turns out neither of them does. This throws into question all the prestige that these two fields in particular are heaped with. “It is possible that both neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers are unnecessarily placed on a pedestal,” the paper argued.

They analyzed the results of an intelligence test 329 aerospace engineers and 72 neurosurgeons took. These were compared to data from 18,000 members of the general public in Britain who took the same test. The Great British Intelligence Test required participants to complete 12 tasks that examine aspects of cognition, speed, memory, attention, reasoning, planning, and emotional processing.

Contrary to expected performance, there was little difference across parameters. The only difference that researchers found was that neurosurgeons were faster at problem-solving, but had slower memory recall. This is because of their profession — neurosurgery — being fast-paced, researchers suggested. In other words, their perceived extra intelligence may be more about hard work and effort than innate cognitive abilities.

“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,” Aswin Chari, one of the authors of the study, told The Guardian.


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But the findings do more than just de-pedestalize these two STEM professions. They can also help people feel more secure about their own abilities without needing to prove that they can do rocket science or brain surgery. “I think that professionals become good at their job through specific training in specific skills that are relevant. For example, neurosurgeons may require microsurgical skills, communication skills and a certain amount of determination but the results of our study show that, in general, the range of cognitive skills is no different to the general population,” Chari Aswin, an academic neurosurgical trainee at the University College London, told ZME Science.

Further, one of the motivations behind the study lay in the fact that the two sectors are predicted to be understaffed in the coming years. “Our results highlight the further efforts required to widen access to these specialities to mitigate impending staff shortages and ensure a diverse workforce to drive future innovation,” the paper notes. The findings can help people approach these professions with more confidence, rather than being too intimidated that they’re just “for smart people,” as the common refrain goes.

“[R]esearchers suggested that questioning stereotypes [about intelligence] could benefit future recruitment in scientific fields,” BBC News reported. In the paper, researchers explained that the gendered and racial stereotypes underlying these popular perceptions about STEM fields leads to less diversity in the field overall. “School aged children perceive STEM to be “masculine” and “clever.” This perception is heavily influenced by gender, class, and race, and deters females, people from lower socioeconomic groups, and people of non-white ethnicity from pursuing STEM careers,” they write.

“We want to help break down the barriers that might make people think some professions are out of their grasp – particularly in under-represented groups. Of course, highly-skilled people like surgeons and engineers are intelligent but those professions also require a lot of hard work and training which are just as important, and anyone with an interest in those careers should feel able to pursue them, regardless of stereotypes,” Aswin concluded.

In a battle of brains between neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers, therefore, neither emerges a clear overall winner. This may not be good news to either of the two groups but, happily, it means the rest of us stand more than a fair chance.

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Written By Rohitha Naraharisetty

Rohitha Naraharisetty is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Previously, she was a freelance writer and independent researcher working in the intersection of gender, social movements, and international relations. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.

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