Saturday, October 19, 2019

#19 - William James Sidis - The Doubt

Originally published December 2011. This one is part of the Billy Sidis series, and not the first one. This is Part II. It is, however, far and away the most-visited.  I don't understand why.  This post was notable for an argument in the comments.

There have been a number of folks who maintained that William Sidis (1898-1944) was the most intelligent person who ever lived.  I spent an entire series on that, and eventually concluded that he was very intelligent, but not in the category of the very best ever.  Wikipedia and other websites do not give as complete information as I do here, so if you are interested in Sidis, this is probably your best stop. In the posts and comments, we also discuss many issues about IQ, accomplishment, genius, what is intelligence, and changes in education.  It could keep you busy for a while, but I think it is entertaining as well as profitable.  I provide links to the rest of the series at the bottom of this essay.


There are solid bits of evidence that might support the claim that William Sidis was a child prodigy, but each has its own weakness as well. He did enter Harvard at age 11 – but his father, a psychiatrist and professor, had been pressing for this for years. Harvard had taken on a few other prodigies, including Buckminster Fuller and Norbert Weiner, and Boris Sidis pressured them into it. Billy did indeed give a lecture on four-dimensional bodies to the mathematics society at age 11, and Weiner, who was present, states it would have done credit to a first year graduate student. But it was not new information, as has often been claimed and was reported then. It was available elsewhere – Weiner simply doubted that William Sidis had access to it, and gave him credit for thinking it out himself. Yet it was not impossible that such material came his way, especially with a father determined to show the world his son was a genius (and his methods thus correct).

Boris Sidis made claims throughout his son’s childhood for his genius – that he read the NY Times at 18 months; taught himself Greek and Latin from 3-5 years old; mastered other tongues before age 8. William did indeed know English, French, Greek, and Latin at age 8 – but we do not know how well. It was claimed he had taught himself Turkish and Armenian. Which of his schoolteachers, pray, could evaluate that? Even if called out on it if someone pulled a passing Turk out to test him, Sidis could claim that he read the language, not spoke it, and the handwriting of natives in a language tends not to look like the printed matter, so he could dodge there as well. Among the Amerind languages he used to pad his total, some were extinct, existing only in a few manuscripts. I suppose he might maintain he knew them as well as anyone did, but my suspicions are running high at this point. Boris stated that William wrote a book on anatomy at age 5. No one seems to have ever seen even a portion of such a manuscript. William did graduate cum laude from Harvard. But entrance and even excelling then were not the accomplishment they would be now. It was fun to reread again, even for me, and the comments are exceptional throughout.

Here’s a bit about Boris’s career. He ran a sanitarium in Portsmouth NH  at what had been the Frank Jones Mansion. The link will give you a flavor. In addition to educational theories, he specialized in hypnosis, dreams, and dissociation, and opposed Freud.

It is hard to be fair to Sidis from this distance. His book The Tribes and The States,  about the 100,000-year history of American Indians, is insanely wrong. He gets their genetics, languages, and government badly wrong. But I am not certain what knowledge was available to him in the early 20th C. Though his theories did not turn out to be true, he may have had ideas worth exploring – no worse than the theories of other experts – based on what was known. I suspect not. He also believed in Atlantis, which figures prominently in his discussion, and reads into the known historical record with great certainty things that even then would have been highly speculative. He insists that “farthest Thule,” where Phoenicians and others raided for slaves was Newfoundland. There is simply no evidence this is so.

I have asked James of “I Don’t Know But…” (sidebar) to evaluate his treatise on reversible universes, and parts of our universe where the Second Law of Thermodynamics runs in reverse, The Animate and the Inanimate.  It seems like a 70’s physics undergrad on weed, frankly. But then, most physics beyond Einstein’s Special Relativity sounds like that to me anyway, so I’m no judge. Perhaps it’s brilliant.

His later writing on freedoms and rights seems to be mere rambling. His sister claimed that Billy could speak all the languages in the world, others more modestly put his total at fifty, and Boris’s at 27. How do we know this? Who could tell? This sister, Helena, is also the source for his IQ being in the range of 250-300 – that he had tested on a civil service exam at 254 later in life. Actually, he had finished 254th in the country that year, according to another report. A creditable accomplishment, but not genius by any stretch.

The discussion from the first part about whether someone gets the adjective intelligent without some body of accomplishment is interesting, and I will not neglect it. The idea that Sidis was HFA/Asperger-y also deserves some consideration and may explain his thinking at least as well as the genius/fraud continuum. Yet I am hesitant to go there, as dishonest puffery does not tend to be associated with the Autism spectrum. It’s not unknown, but being offended by minor deviations from the truth is more common.

 And Another One Bites The Dust - Part One
Prodigy (Sidis Part Three)
About That 1869 Harvard Entrance Exam (Part 3A)
Smart, Wealthy, Athletic - What It Means To Be Intelligent. A Digression On IQ.
But If It's True...


Anonymous said...

"William did graduate cum laude from Harvard. But entrance and even excelling then were not the accomplishment they would be now."

Right. Back in the olden days entrance to Harvard was easy. See, lots of 11 year olds today could ace the math on this old Harvard entrance exam:

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, I have seen that examination and have commented on it elsewhere. If there's enough need for it, we'll go into the problems with it here. Briefly, it does not provide the evidence you think it does. If you are concerned about the transcript, you can indeed see it.

Not very impressive, is it? When one remembers that the phrase "Gentleman's "C" was an Ivy League phrase, it becomes even less so. Sidis does seem to have been above-average in intelligence. It may be that he is even well-above-average, though that is murky. But the claims for genius are quite simply, not that solid.

Harvard was much easier then. Many man got in because of connections rather than ability. There were plenty of brilliant folks, who did indeed gravitate to the Ivies and Little Ivies, but there was no guarantee that a Harvard student was any more than average intelligence and rich.

Notice, for example, in Sidis's biography, that other Harvard students beat him up because he was strange and unhygienic. that hardly seems the behavior of deeply intellectual lads who respected learning.

You seem determined to defend some already-held belief without question. whether that is about Sidis, about Harvard, or about The Good Old Days, I can't tell.

But you might hesitate before firing with both barrels. You might first read Part One, which may suggest to you...

No, I will let that ride. Step into the arena, if you will.

Anonymous said...

Okay Assistant Village Idiot, strap on your dunce cap and have a seat over there. The average GPA at Harvard in 1890 was 2.27. In 1950, it was 2.55. In 2004 it was 3.48. This phenomenon is called Grade Inflation. Sidis's cumulative GPA of 3.25 would be slightly below average today, but at the time, it was about one letter grade above average. That's why he graduated with honors.

As for Sidis's not getting along socially at Harvard being evidence for the institution's anti-intellectualism and by extension Sidis's own lack of intelligence: Would you use Ted Kaczynski's not getting along socially at Harvard in the late 50s and early 60s to show that Kaczynski must have been dumb because he went to a school where he was a considered a freak for being so much smarter than everyone else? If so, can you tell me which logical fallacy you are using? Rich legacy students attended Harvard then, as they do now; but then, as now, even the dumb students at Harvard were smarter than the smart students at most colleges. The only difference is that now we have nationally standardized college entrance exams to prove it.

Furthermore, college graduates as a group are more intelligent than those who didn't go to college. This was even more true in Sidis's time when fewer people went to college and fewer people graduated high school because schools felt less pressure to lower standards in order to make the degrees more accessible.

Now let's assume for the sake of argument that you aren't wrong about all the things I've just demonstrated you to be wrong about. Let's pretend that Sidis just graduated high school at age 11, and was at that time no smarter than the average high-school graduates and high-school drop outs. That still would have made him an 11 year old being measured against 18 year olds, and would therefore give him a ratio IQ in the neighborhood of 145-164, depending how you want to adjust for intellectual development leveling off in early adulthood.

So if he merely graduated high school at that age, you should credit him with a three sigma IQ. However, he didn't just graduate high school. He got also accepted to college, the most elite college in the country, where he studied math and physics, and maintained a GPA one letter grade above average (at age 11). The IQ you have to credit him with goes higher than three sigma, higher than four sigma - way higher than yours.

Here endeth the lesson.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Okay, I get it. You accuse me of saying something I didn't, then spend a lot of time and energy proving that wrong, and puff out your chest in victory.

I call it an admission of defeat, actually. My contention was that Sidis was probably decently intelligent, but the claims for his genius were soft. You have chosen to refute a claim that Sidis was just a typical 11-year-old, which I don't think anyone has made. Even at worst case, that his father carried him through, doing his studies for him and providing him with advanced information on the sly, William would have to have some intelligence. It couldn't all be a put-up job. Yet

I am suggesting that the worst case may in fact be true. Once away from his parents, William no longer succeeded academically. Perhaps that was emotional - he was young and vulnerable. But it could also be that he had never had the full abilities - Dad had always stage-managed.

So I will invite you again to enter the arena, and discuss the actual subject at hand, rather than merely shout from the exit.

james said...

I read the book in question, except for the missing Chapter 12. There's nothing remotely like black holes. His dark stars refer either to some primordial star or to a time-reversed star--which of course light goes into and not out of.

He claims that life is an entropy-reversing "tendency," and that on time reversal many things we call dead would appear alive. Thus the title... The universe is 50/50 entropy increasing/reversing. One way to spot a region of entropy reversal is to look for "apparent teleology".

A more thorough review is too long to fit in a blogger comment: I posted it.

The executive summary is that if he was a genius, you couldn't prove it by the book. The book is also (a different matter) not useful.

Anonymous said...

No. I didn't attack the claim that Sidis was average. That's clear from what I wrote.

You seem to be suggesting that his father tutored him in college and ghost-wrote papers for him. Sidis never got less than an A in physics. Meaning he must have done well on physics tests. The university lets you bring two pencils to the exam, but they don't let you bring your parents.

If his father was writing his papers for him, maybe that's why Sidis got his lowest marks in courses where papers count for more of the grade than exams?

The statement about "providing him with advanced information on the sly" is interesting. That makes it sound as if a `gifted` student who studies is cheating, whereas it would be perfectly acceptable for an average student to study. Incidentally, if Sidis did read a book about four-dimensional shapes before lecturing on the subject, I find it far more likely that he borrowed the book from his university library rather than from his father. Actually, I think that's the kind of thing that school libraries are there for.

Texan99 said...

Yep. Very bright, very precocious, and with very ambitious parents.

World-class genius? It can't be disproved, of course, but there's no obvious reason to believe it. A kid can be unusual without being a super-extraordinary genius. I don't see any reason to classify him with, say, Isaac Newton, who was every bit as precocious a student and left a body of work that's as stunning today as it was nearly four centuries ago.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Anon - well that's better, but still not there. Your quote

"See, lots of 11 year olds today could ace the math on this old Harvard entrance exam:"

was indeed a statement that Sidis was smarter than an average 11 year old, not that he was the smartest person in the world.

Other points are better. Sidis would indeed have to pass some tests somewhere, and interact with professors on his own at some points, and often, between 11-15. However much he was prepped and fluffed, he would need to be quite precocious to manage that without someone starting to say "You know, that Sidis boy, I'm not sure..." And yes, even reading and gaining some understanding of papers on four-dimensional bodies is remarkable in an eleven-year old.

But not stunning. Not world-beating. Not if this claimed resume is inflated in any way. (Even if it is not inflated, I don't think he makes it to quite the top shelf - but he's got a much better argument, certainly.) That's the claim I am going at first - that there is nothing inflated here. Boris's writings indicate he might be capable of this. Sidis's later writings do not seem a natural outgrowth of a genius untethered, but of a rather narcissistic person who was convinced that his saying so was enough, no evidence required.

James post on this is interesting.

Wikipedia and others are making the positive claim that he is the highest IQ ever, giving at least grudging credibility to the 250-300 number. I think I have shown it is at least possible that there is fraud, and cresting over into the territory that some fraud is the most likely explanation.

But it is not the only possible explanation. The original claim for some genius remains at least possible.

I am going three places from here, all of them, I think fairly brief, and then a fourth, longer, discussion of intelligence: 1) a comparable situation to Sidis from when I was in the IQ societies, Adragon deMello; 2) the 1869 entrance exam to Harvard that you referenced, which is not as impressive as it seems - but a give-back for you, in that by 1909, Harvard was a much better college (though still not what popular imagination would suggest); 3) Even if all of Sidis is as advertised, where does he rank?

karrde said...

Per the high IQ: I have it on what looks to be good authority that IQ is very hard to measure accurately at the margins.

That is, it is possible to measure for "over 180", but very hard to find accurate measurement for how far "over 180" the person in question is.

This, all by itself, leads me to think that claims of measured IQ over 250 are useless.

Beyond that, I don't have a full opinion yet. Sidis shows some signs of prodigy. But most intelligent person ever? I doubt it.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Regarding IQ at the margins: Meaning starts to weaken even before 180 - I would say it starts at about 140 (1 in 100). Ron Hoeflin and Kevin Langdon both tried to develop tests that had higher ceilings, specifically because the S-B and the WAIS weren't that kind of instrument. They were intentionally designed to measure the center with good accuracy and give some indication at the extremes. At the other edge, they don't measure mental capacity in developmentally delayed children either.

176 is 1 in 1,000,000. I don't think anyone in the societies thinks that numbers are meaningful above that level - hints at best.

One distinction: Highest IQ, most intelligent, smartest, etc are often used interchangeably, but I think that's wrong. "Highest IQ" may be elusive, but it is at least theoretically measurable and knowable; "most intelligent" likely includes that but is less clear; "smartest" has too many complicating and confounding factors to be very precise at all.

Anonymous said...

“"See, lots of 11 year olds today could ace the math on this old Harvard entrance exam:"

was indeed a statement that Sidis was smarter than an average 11 year old, not that he was the smartest person in the world.”

You seem to have grasped some of the sarcasm in that statement.

Jeffery Winkler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeffery Winkler said...

William James Sidis was an outright fraud. The person perpetrating the fraud was his father. Nonetheless, it was a total fraud. Even though you are claiming to be skeptical, the overall tone is giving him the benefit of the doubt. Stop and think about this. There is no actual evidence that he knew a single language other than English. What if he never knew a single language other than English, and his father completely made the whole thing up? I do not believe that he was ever any kind of "prodigy" at all. Why do you believe any of this? Why are you so trusting of what his father said? Would you be more skeptical if his father said he knew 30,000 languages, including the language of Atlantis? At what point do you say, well that guy's a liar, and therefore dismiss everything he says, unless there is some actual evidence beyond the word of his father?

I think that William James Sidis had BELOW average intelligence! If someone else wrote some crackpot manifesto about the lost city of Atlantis, you would say they were below average intelligence for believing such total nonsense. Why do you hesitate to say that here?

Let me make something perfectly clear. William James Sidis had no knowledge or understanding of mathematics whatsoever! NONE! There is no evidence that this guy could do high school calculus or any basic mathematics that today the average high school student could do. Maybe if the writer of this blog knew more math, he would not have been fooled so easily. Let me tell you something. The average 11 year old could easily give a talk on four dimensional geometry. This does not require any knowledge of advanced math. All kids that age learn basic geometry in school, and just going up to four spatial dimensions does not require anything extra. In zero dimensions, you have a point. In one dimension, you have a line segment. In two dimensions, you have a square. In three dimensions, you have a cube. In four dimensions, you have a hypercube. Any 11 year old could understand that or give a talk about it. When I was that age, I read books about the fourth dimension about Rudy Rucker. Any child that age can understand it. It's not hard. There is absolutely zero evidence that this guy ever had any knowledge of mathematics beyond that of the average 11 year old. Even when he was an adult, he never had any knowledge of mathematics beyond that of the average 11 year old.

If the writer of this blog knew more about mathematics, they would not have been fooled so easily. Examples of advanced mathematics include algebraic topology, cohomology, the Riemann Hypothesis, monstrous moonshine, and the Langlands program. The writer of this blog never heard of any of those things, and neither did William James Sidis, whom I believe had some sort of mental deficiency, or at least he had the mind of a child for the rest of his adult life.

Another example of someone who is below average intelligence is Marilyn vos Savant. Guess what? She is also touted as the most intelligent human on Earth. If you ever read her column, it is extremely obvious that she is below average intelligence.

There are other people who are a combination of intelligent and crazy, such as Nikola Tesla, who believed in all kinds of nonsense, such as believing that he was in communication with aliens on Mars. However, despite that, Tesla did some things, such as inventing the AC motor. On the other hand, William James Sidis never did a damn thing, never showed any indication that he had any understanding of math, science, language, or anything else. Nikola Tesla was a combination of intelligent and crazy. William James Sidis was just crazy, without any indication of intelligence whatsoever.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I take your points, but you go too far. I wrote a whole series on sidis - and I don't know how much of it you read. One of the paragraphs in the post "But if it's true..." was
Norbert Wiener, in his book Ex-Prodigy, quite clearly testifies to Sidis' brilliance in mathematics at a young age. That is the single most powerful bit of evidence in favor of the premise that Sidis was the real deal. Wiener was not close to him, but knew him at Harvard, had a class with him, and had some conversations with him. He also knew him later in life, when William was haunting the halls of MIT for employment doing computational work, of which there was plenty in the 1940's - but no more, because he did not want to get too deeply into mathematics any longer. Sparse contact, but real, not hearsay.

The computational work would not be doable by someone of below-average intelligence, not would the math courses at Harvard be understandable to such a person. I conclude that his intelligence was high but not stratospheric. As for Marilyn, her supposed world-record IQ of 232 was taken in childhood, which is always suspect. I knew her in the High-IQ societies in the 1980s and she seemed intelligent but unexciting. The members did fawn over her a bit (and Paul Erlich), which annoyed me, but she never seemed to step in it and say anything particularly stupid.

As for my own math, I got 800s on my MathI and MathII, took advanced studies at St. Paul's, started undergrad as a math major, and eventually qualified for the Prometheus Society. But I was only good in narrow areas, I now see as I look back. Had I gone on in math it would have been programming, number theory, or perhaps transforms. Like Sidis and Vos Savant, perhaps - good but not great.