Dear Crabby,

I learned recently that nearly half of the American population is below average intelligence. Should we be concerned?


No Dummy

Dear No Dummy,

That’s clever, though technically I believe you mean half of the population is below median (not average) intelligence. And even then, the statement doesn’t account for those who are right at the median. Like, if 2% of people are right at the median, that leaves 98% of the population, so 49% would be below the median.

Whatever. We’re splitting hairs. That’s not the point of your submission.

What I think you’re getting at is the fact that, while everyone believes themselves to be smarter than the median, necessarily — definitionally — about half of them are wrong. That means if you’re on an elevator with one other person, there’s a good chance one of you is dumb as rocks. Wait. No. It doesn’t mean that. That’s a misleading oversimplification. What it means is that if you measure the IQs of people in any group there will be a range, and roughly half of the people will fall on the less-intelligent half of that range. (The whole population’s intelligence could double tomorrow and this would still be true.)

Should we be concerned? No. At least not any more than we are about the other basic laws of mathematics and statistics.

But, the joke in your question aside, it does brush up against the broader issue of whether we should be concerned that less-intelligent people overestimate their own intelligence. That’s a fascinating field of study. If you’re interested in it, I suggest you read up on the concept of illusory superiority, specifically the Dunning-Kruger effect. I won’t pretend to be able to estimate the real-world impact of that phenomenon, though I’m certain it is bad. (Sure seems like there are a lot of dummies out there, and they aren’t aware of their own stupidity, and that could be a problem, like, societally.)

Rather than focus on that, I’d like to examine the concept of intelligence itself and point out that there are virtually limitless types of it. Take an elite athlete for instance. I don’t think Peyton Manning or LeBron James or Barry Sanders is ever going to win a Nobel Prize in physics, but each of them has demonstrated one-in-a-billion ability to quickly process huge amounts of dynamic data in a split second and then translate that thought process into physical action. That’s a kind of intelligence that doesn’t show up on standardized tests. Same thing with a gifted empath’s emotional intelligence. Or a jazz musician’s ability to improvise without even engaging the intellectual part of the brain.

My ability to contextualize intelligence by examining those other forms of it definitely means I’m in the top 50%. There’s no way I could be wrong about that. Right?

Hope that helps.



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