Judging the Tail

It’s easy to judge who is the fastest runner or swimmer. Judges do not need to be runners and swimmers themselves. They simply need a stopwatch and a camera.

Other competitions are more difficult to judge. Take for example the Fields medal. The judges need to be mathematicians. Since they can’t be experts in all the different areas of mathematics, they have to rely on recommendation letters. The mathematicians who write recommendation letters are biased, because they are interested in promoting their own field. The committee’s job is not simple, not the least because it involves a lot of politics. It is easy to award the medal to Grigory Perelman. He solved a high-profile long-standing conjecture. But other cases are not that straightforward.

Imagine a genius mathematician with a new vision. He or she might be so far ahead of everyone else, that the Fields committee would fail to appreciate the new concept. I wish the math community would create a list of mathematicians who deserved the Fields medal, but were passed over. As time goes by, perhaps a new Einstein will emerge on this list.

The reason the Fields committee more or less works is that the judges do not need to be as talented mathematicians as the awardees. They do not need to create mathematics, they need to understand it. And the latter is easier than the former.

A completely different story happens with IQ tests. Someone has to write those tests. There is no reason to think that writers of the IQ tests are anywhere close to the end tail of the IQ distribution. Hence, the IQ tests are not qualified to find the IQ geniuses.

IQ test

Now might be a good time to complain about the IQ test I took myself. Many years ago I tried an IQ test online through tickle.com. I was so disappointed with my non-perfect score that I never looked at my answers. Recently, while cleaning my apartment, I discovered the printout of the test. I made one mistake in the following question.

Which one of the designs is least like the other four?

The checkmark is the expected answer. They think that the circle is the odd one out because all the other shapes are polygons. The arrow points to my answer. I chose the right triangle because it is the only shape without symmetries. Who says that polygonality is more important than symmetry?



  1. Felipe Pait:

    Well you could say that IQ measures your ability to find the answers that the judges want you to give. It is a form of intelligence, perhaps. Can be useful in business and politics, though not necessarily useful for society.

    As for Einstein, he never got a Nobel Prize for relativity, most likely because no one in the Nobel committee understood either special or general relativity. Instead he got one for showing that cell phones cannot cause cancer, a point that many people still fail to understand. But in math everyone now gets a 2nd chance, the Abel prize.

  2. Harry:

    Maybe IQ tests should feature a comment box for one to write the failings in each question? That way they could find a new “IQ genius”, as long as the examiner understands the comments of course.

  3. saar:

    polygonality is not more important than symmetry but circle has infinite number of symmetries, so even from this point of view it is diffrent shape.

  4. yom_cule:

    I always had an issue with such tests. All these questions want us to ‘discover’ patterns. While some patterns may be more intuitive or easy to detect for few of us, someone who thinks differently may as well ‘discover’ a different pattern within the same set of numbers/figures.

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