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Assignment: Impossible

Assignment: Impossible

Exploring the area between the unknown and the impossible.

Too Hard For Science? Could Michael Jackson Have Created Twitter?

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If you are one type of genius, could you have been another?

In "Too Hard For Science?" I interview scientists about ideas they would love to explore that they don't think could be investigated. For instance, they might involve machines beyond the realm of possibility, such as devices as big as galaxies, or they might be completely unethical, such as experimenting on children like lab rats. This feature aims to look at the impossible dreams, the seemingly intractable problems in science. However, the question mark at the end of "Too Hard For Science?" suggests that nothing might be impossible.

The scientist: Scott Barry Kaufman, an adjunct assistant professor of psychology at New York University.

The idea: If renowned geniuses had tried their hands at fields other than what they decided to pursue, might they have succeeded as well? "How general is genius? Could Michael Jackson have created Twitter?" Kaufman asks. "Probably not. But who knows?"

"This is not an easy question," he explains. "Greatness requires a combination of many different elements. For one thing, greatness requires a confluence of many individual traits — intelligence, creativity, personality, talent, and interests — that differ in importance depending on the domain. To be a great entertainer requires keen expressive skills and an outgoing personality whereas to be a great scientist requires high levels of meticulousness and attention to detail. No matter the domain, greatness requires a good number of years of deliberate practice, a nurturing environment, and gatekeepers that allow you to enter a domain."

"Very few polymaths exist today," Kaufman notes. "But is it because the time necessary to master a domain today makes it practically untenable to gain the expertise required to be great in multiple domains, or is it because genius really is domain-specific?"

This is an important question, Kaufman stresses. "Psychologists discovered a long time ago that people who tend to do well on one test of cognitive reasoning tend to do well on other diverse tests of cognitive reasoning, and those who do poorly also tend to score poorly across the board. This finding has led to the concept of 'general intelligence' and has provided justification for gifted education programs all across the United States to require extremely high general intelligence to be deemed 'gifted.' But what if such high levels of general intelligence just aren't all that important to be great in most domains? If it turns out that most forms of genius are exquisitely domain-specific, then gifted programs might be better suited looking for students with unique constellation of traits and behaviors that are appropriate for particular domains."

To investigate this question, ideally one would need to take people who are already great in one domain, "say, Mark Zuckerberg or Lady Gaga, and convince them to quit their current job and devote the next ten years of their lives to becoming great in a completely different domain — for example, encouraging Mark to learn how to perform 'Bad Romance' like Gaga and encouraging Gaga to start a social networking website," Kaufman says. "Would make for a great reality TV show, wouldn't it?"

"Along the way, we would have to hold the environment constant by giving them all equal nurturance and resources to succeed," he adds. "Of course, this would require an adequate sample size, which is a problem since there are only a limited number of people in this world who are already great in their field."

The problem: "To conduct this study, society would have to be willing to lose some of their favorite entertainers, social entrepreneurs, scientists, and architects and be willing to watch them fail miserably in other domains," Kaufman says. "I'm not so sure people would be too happy with this."

"This experiment is reminiscent of Michael Jordan's attempt to be a great baseball player," he notes. "It was evident that he was better suited for basketball. Jordan's naturalistic experiment suggested that even athletic ability is not domain-general."

"What was untested in Jordan's experiment, however, was how important general intelligence was for his basketball greatness," Kaufman adds. "What if he tried to be a great mathematician, a domain that is highly correlated with general intelligence? Would he have been just as good in math as he was in basketball or even baseball?"

The solution? "Important prior research has found that individual differences in both general cognitive ability and specific cognitive ability — math, verbal, and spatial abilities — measured in early adolescence significantly predict educational, occupational, and creative outcomes decades later," Kaufman notes. "This research, and others, suggests that both domain-general and domain-specific aspects contribute to some forms of greatness. Even so, their research does not pit domain-general and domain-specific abilities against each other to see which is more important than the other across a wide range of domains, from golf to hip hop."

"It would be interesting to take a large batch of motivated college students who are having difficulty deciding on a major and measure their domain-specific proclivities and interests as well as their general intelligence," he says. "Then, either assign students to majors that are well suited to their unique talents and interests or randomly assign students to a major. Follow the students for at least 10 years after they graduate. Who was more likely to be great — the person who was well-matched to their domain-specific skills and interests or the individual with high general intelligence that was assigned a major at random? What domains did they end up being great in? Within the group that was well-matched to their major, what was a better predictor of their success — general intelligence or their domain-specific skills? How does the balance of prediction change across domains? The same design could be conducted on a willing group of adults who want to change careers."

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Kaufman, like Jeanne Garbarino, volunteered this piece to me. If you are a scientist with an idea you think might be too hard for science or you have a scientist you would like to recommend I question, email me at toohardforscience@gmail.com.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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