Life
Julia Rampen 7 Mar 2019 07:15pm

Book reviews: on intellect

David Robson’s examination of whether it is possible to be too clever by half is both entertaining and intriguing

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Caption: David Robson, author of "The intelligence trap"

The intelligence trap: why smart people do stupid things and how to make wiser decisions

David Robson, Hodder & Stoughton

Kary Mullis is a Nobel prize-winning scientist who indulges in crank conspiracy theories and believes he was abducted by aliens. Paul Frampton, an admired physicist, was persuaded by a woman he met online to carry a suitcase filled with cocaine over international borders.

The Intelligence Trap, David Robson’s account of how even the most expert professionals can make glaring oversights, contains plenty of such entertaining schadenfreude. More seriously, it asks how those who are considered the brightest and the best by our current measures of intelligence can nevertheless fail to succeed practically in some, or indeed all, aspects of their lives.

Even the most celebrated geniuses, such as Albert Einstein, spent years in the mediocre wilderness (Einstein came up with his celebrated formula E = mc2 as a young man but dedicated the final chapter of his life to pursuing a “unified field theory” that failed to inspire his colleagues).

Robson explains these conundrums by exposing the limits of IQ tests by exploring biases, and explaining how the same analytical skills that might allow us to carry out a complicated task quickly can also blinker us.

Intriguingly, one study of the financial crisis found that, counter to received wisdom, those banks with the least expert board members tended to do better after the crash, perhaps because they were less biased. While The Intelligence Trap is intriguing enough as a series of observations, Robson also provides practical ways for readers to test their own intellectual limitations.

He cites the example of Benjamin Franklin who, in his latter years, declared: “The older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgement.” A more recent inspiration is Richard Feynman, who did not stand out at school, but, driven by curiosity, revolutionised physics and also became an artist, a linguist and bongo drummer.

For those not marked out for genius, The Intelligence Trap could easily be renamed The Intelligence Opportunity.

Julia Rampen is a writer and editor specialising in culture, politics and finance.

 

When the Dogs Don’t Bark: A forensic scientist’s search for the truth

Professor Angela Gallop, Hodder & Stoughton

In some ways, the memoir of Angela Gallop, a renowned forensic scientist, resembles a rambling Sherlock Holmes story. There is the case of Roberto Calvi, an Italian banker found hanging from London’s Blackfriars Bridge, whose death Gallop painstakingly reconstructs in a bid to discover whether it was suicide or murder.

Or the war hero’s fingerprints, which a woman insists he left on her handbag in his last moments. And then there are Gallop’s eccentric colleagues, who convert a house into a lab complete with a cannabis farm in the conservatory.

Despite encountering staggering sexism in her early career, Gallop’s passion for forensics drove her on. She describes how a single fibre of clothing or a fleck of dried blood can change the trajectory of a court case.

Most gripping is her involvement with the Stephen Lawrence investigation, where fibres from the killers’ clothes led in turn to the discovery of specks of blood, and a hair which provided a crucial DNA profile.

Yet Gallop, although working with a ghostwriter, lacks a Watson, and her anecdotes often frustratingly tail off. As a forensic scientist, she explains she does not need to know the outcome of a case – but most readers want to.