Saturday, December 17, 2011

And Another One Bites The Dust - Part One

I think the story of Billy Sidis, the purported prodigy with the highest IQ (250-300) ever known, is mostly fraudulent.

I first read about William James Sidis in the pages of Gift of Fire in the late 80’s. GoF was the journal of the Prometheus Society, a discussion group for those with measured IQ over 164. Amy Wallace’s book on Sidis, The Prodigy, had just come out, and Grady Towers took the opportunity to bring us up to speed on the early 20th C brilliant but eccentric child. That essay, "The Outsiders," is perhaps the best known of the articles to come out of the High-IQ societies. Its primary topic is the increasing difficulty of adjustment individuals experience the further from norm they are. Terman's studies in the 40's of gifted individuals showed that those above 140 IQ were better adapted than average. Grady looked harder at the data and decided that those from 140-150 were better adjusted than average, but beyond that things steadily worsened. The greater frequency of those from 140-150 masked the data of the few from say, 170-180.

It was perhaps inevitable that Grady would gravitate to the subject of Sidis. Grady qualified for the next society up, the Mega Society, for those with one-in-a-million IQ, cutoff 176. He had been a prodigy himself, almost completing a PhD in Anthropology at age 20, but by the time I knew him (via journal and correspondence), he was usually homeless, working odd jobs across the Southwest, writing on borrowed typewriters and sending mathematical proofs - usually number theory - to whoever would have them. He was murdered horribly in 2000 while working as a security guard. I liked corresponding with him.

I ran across a stray mention of William James Sidis while reading about the Pennacook Indians. (He had believed their tribal decision-making methods had deeply influenced the New England Founding Fathers, and hence the Constitution. Pure bunkum, to be discussed below.) I remembered the story, but not the name, and I thought I recalled that it was Gift of Fire, and Grady, where I had learned of Sidis. As I tried to get to the bottom of the story of the prodigy, I wondered if G Towers had uncovered some little-known source and had inside information on the boy who went to Harvard at 11, but spent much of his adult life collecting and classifying streetcar transfers and being rescued by his parents.

Alas, not so. Grady's info was pretty clearly drawn from Wallace's biography of Sidis. I have read only scraps of that, but she clearly has taken what Sidis and his family have claimed about him at face value. She wants to believe the tragic narrative of prodigy who just couldn't adjust, nor the world adjust to him. There was a time when I preferred that narrative, too. I fancied myself a prodigy, and could cherry-pick data to prove to you that it was true. But it wasn't. I was a very smart, creative child who was also arrogant and self-centered. No more than that. But the desire to be one of those - one of those special children who would show up occasionally in magazines, or on "I've Got A Secret," or in Ripley's "Believe It Or Not" - is very sweet. It provides a ready excuse for anyone not liking you, or you not fitting in. If you are that smart, then of course it is the school that has failed, not you, when you screw up.

Sidis's parents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, she a physician, he one of the first psychiatrists, though a bit out of the mainstream. Certainly the type of people who you'd expect might have a prodigy. They seemed to have expected it as well. Boris Sidis had educational theories about how to raise children to be geniuses. How convenient to have one, eh?

The articles about Billy, including in Wikipedia, generally acknowledge that some claims about him were misunderstood, or even bogus. Yet they generally credit his prodigy status as essentially true. I did run across another doubter at a site called The Logics. I don't know anything about the writer (though I am certainly well-disposed to him right off the bat), so there's no implied endorsement of the site, which seems pretty extensive. I will give my reasons for doubting the claims about Sidis sometime this week, but the sneak preview should be obvious. There are numerous stories, many of which are quite plausible, about William James Sidis. The hard evidence behind them seems elusive. He was clearly quite intelligent. But the evidence that he was a genius...?

Baseball history fans may have had the story of Moe Berg occur to him while reading all this.  A lot more examination has been done on him, but I may have some fun with that later as well.


lelia said...

This is fascinating.

Texan99 said...

It's really hard to take seriously claims about the extraordinary intelligence of anyone who didn't produce a lasting body of impressive intellectual work.

A_Nonny_Mouse said...

"... spent much of his adult life collecting and classifying streetcar transfers ..."
= = = = =

Sidis sounds like another Aspie... exceedingly gifted at whatever he focuses on, but unable/ unwilling/ ??? to shift that focus.

Donna B. said...

Sometimes it's hard to take seriously claims about the extraordinary intelligence of some who DO produce a lasting body of impressive intellectual work. :-)

More seriously, I do not see why brains, smarts, ability, etc., would always be paired with a desire to be productive or even an interest in something 'meaningful' to the rest of us.

Texan99 said...

That's very true, but then we might as well speculate about the genius of a bird or a rock. It's not that it's not impossible that the genius would be too great for us to recognize, it's just that genius that's inherently unknowable can't have much meaning for us.

Anonymous said...

Why don't you call Harvard and get his transcript. See how many other non-geniuses graduated from there with four year mathematics degrees at age 16, and how many of those were with honors.

Texan99 said...

His accomplishment at Harvard undoubtedly indicates that he was very, very bright and precocious. A far cry from that to "smartest guy who ever existed on the planet."

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