Queen of intellect tackles brain teasers in new book

November 24, 1992|By McClatchy News Service

The woman with the highest IQ score on Earth wants IQ tests scrapped, saying the 90-year-old exam is a crude, untrustworthy measure of brainpower.

"There's no way [French psychologist Alfred] Binet could, in 1905, have stumbled over a Rosetta stone for intelligence," said Marilyn vos Savant by telephone from her New York office. "It's the only test we've got, but I don't put much stock in it. It's very weak and very subjective. I'd vote for doing away with them entirely."

At age 10, Ms. vos Savant scored 228 on the Revised Stanford-Binet tests, the standard IQ exam still used today. Her score, according to the "Guinness Book of World Records," was the highest ever recorded.

Her score led to an interview with Parade magazine, the Sunday newspaper insert that appears in 342 newspapers, with about 70 million readers. The interview led Parade editor Walter Anderson to suggest she answer a few brain-teasers in a column.

That was six years ago. Her nouvelle Americana column, "Ask Marilyn," has since become the intellectual equivalent to Miss Manners, answering all forms of questions, from logic and probability to math and philosophy, with a few knee-slappers thrown in for sex appeal.

So it seems odd that Ms. vos Savant bad-mouths the test that made her famous. But that's her style.

"I write a thinking column that is nonpartisan," she said. "So many questions are steeped with subjectivity. People write me because they know I'll at least attempt to give an objective, thinking answer to their questions."

Several examples of her method appear in "Ask Marilyn," a book recently released by St. Martin's Press. Some questions require objectivity to pierce the rhetoric.

For example: A man is staring at a portrait and says: "Brothers and sisters I have none, but this man's father is my father's son." Whose picture is it?

"This is a brain-teaser," she said. "But if you listen objectively, it's simple."

It's a portrait of his son.

In others, the "unbiased logic" is shaky. Many of the column's questions are philosophic, answerless quandaries: What's the biggest room in the world? (The room for improvement.) Which came first, the chicken or the egg? (The egg; a chicken isn't defined by the kind of egg it lays, but an egg is defined by the kind of creature it contains.)

"They seem to be wasted questions, but they're questions philosophers have considered for 2,000 years," she said. "And we're still arguing about them, so they must be important to someone."

Her columns generated 30,000 letters in 1991, reinforcing or contesting her answers, others just relaying similar stories.

"The ones I think will produce a lot of mail don't," she explained. "Like the man who wrote and asked why, when he ate corn on the cob, his cob always came up square. We got 3,000 letters, people saying 'I have a cousin whose cob comes out triangular.' It's strange."

But the letters have changed her mind about the American intellect. Instead of a nation reflecting the sub-plankton brainpower of the average couch potato, she instead discovered active synapses behind the idiocy.

"I didn't realize people were as intellectually vigorous as they are. Many of them are stuck in low-think jobs, and they desperately want to think, so they use something such as the Monty Hall Paradox to do it."

Ah, the Monty Hall Paradox. The probability question generated more letters than any other, with academic debates and mathematical experiments trailing the question in high schools, universities and government think tanks.

After weeks of being told she was incorrect, experiments began proving her out.

"I thought maybe someone had slipped me a trick question and I'd fallen for it. But . . . we did the experiment and it turned out I was right. In the course of things, I heard from the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Justice, NASA. I was surprised these people read the column at all."

She answers most questions without research, unless they involve current technology.

"I'm not going to look at a book before I think about it myself. I want to say something fresh and spontaneous and have it be me, instead of a book answering for me."

And while her column is her stage, she considers it a hobby. Her real work is a blur of mortality rates, computer-aided design images and U.S. Food and Drug Administration hearings, regarding her husband's invention: the artificial heart.

Dr. Robert Jarvik's Jarvik-7 artificial heart, which used air compression to power the ventricles, disappeared from the spotlight after it failed to sustain its recipients longer than a few weeks. But now Ms. vos Savant and Dr. Jarvik are testing a new model, the Jarvik-2000, and expect human use in two years.

GO FIGURE . . .

The Monty Hall Paradox caused the biggest uproar in the 6-year history of Marilyn vos Savant's "Ask Marilyn" column. Here it is, with the answer finally agreed upon, after an experiment in the Beverly Hills home of the former "Let's Make a Deal" host.

Q: Suppose you are on a game show, and you're given the choice between three doors. Behind one door is a car, the other, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what's behind the doors, opens another, say No. 3, which has a goat. He says to you, "Do you want to pick door No. 2?" Is it to your advantage to switch your choice of doors?

A: Yes, you should switch. The first door has a one-third chance of winning, but the second door has a two-thirds chance. Here's a good way to visualize what happened. Suppose there are a million doors, and you pick door No. 1. Then the host, who knows what's behind all the doors and will always avoid the one with the prize, opens them all except door No. 777,777. You'd switch to that door pretty fast, wouldn't you?

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