Rocket scientists and brain surgeons are no brighter than general population, study finds

Rocket scientists had higher scores for mental manipulation while neurosurgeons fared better at rare word definition

Vishwam Sankaran
Tuesday 14 December 2021 10:28

Despite what commonly used phrases such as “it’s not rocket science” and “it’s not brain surgery” may have us believe, a new study suggests that neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers are no smarter than the general population.

The research, published in the Christmas issue of The BMJ, compared the intelligence of 329 aerospace engineers and 72 neurosurgeons with 18,257 members of the general population in the UK, US and Canada, who were all recruited through the internet.

The participants completed an online test to measure six distinct domains of cognition, spanning planning and reasoning, working memory, attention, and emotion processing abilities.

After taking into account potentially influential factors, such as gender, handedness, and experience in respective fields, researchers found that aerospace engineers and neurosurgeons were equally matched across most domains.

However, the study noted that they differed in two respects. Rocket scientists showed better mental manipulation abilities, such as in visualising and rotating objects in the mind, whereas neurosurgeons were better at semantic problem-solving tasks like rare word definition.

Compared to the general population, aerospace engineers did not show significant differences in any domains, and while brain surgeons were able to solve problems faster than the general population, they showed a slower memory recall speed.

Based on the results, the researchers said that despite the stereotypes prevalent, all three groups showed a wide range of cognitive abilities.

They added that aerospace engineering and neurosurgery might be unnecessarily put on a pedestal. Phrases unrelated to careers, such as “it’s a walk in the park”, might be more appropriate, they said.

However, the researchers also noted that the study is only observational and does not represent the global range of aerospace engineers and neurosurgeons.

Citing another limitation of the study, they said the participants were not balanced for geographical locations, adding that the data may not represent true cognitive abilities of the general population since the test was based on self-selection rather than random sampling of participants.

“The control group was mainly white, had completed secondary school, and had a university degree,” they added.

“It is also possible that other professions might deserve to be on that pedestal, and future work should aim to determine the most deserving group,” the researchers concluded.

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