For months the business headlines of America’s leading media outlets have been charting the looming downfall of Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman, now on the verge of losing control of his enormous media company to Shari Redstone, the once-estranged daughter of controlling shareholder Sumner Redstone. Just a few years ago, he was America’s highest-paid chief executive, with his rise to power chronicled in a massive 4,000 word New York Times profile, which absorbed much of the front page of the Business Section. And now he is seemingly more focused on negotiating his exit package, with his fall partly matching the decline in his corporate share price.
But even more remarkable than his fall in business stature has been the new-found silence on his tested intelligence, which for years had been described as corresponding to an IQ in the range of 260, very possibly the highest ever recorded in the history of the human species.
What’s that? Doesn’t that woman who has for decades provided a “Dear Abby” type letter-column in Parade Magazine have the world’s highest IQ? Or isn’t it that semi-employed college drop-out and former bar-bouncer who mathematically proved the existence of God and generated much chatter on the Internet a dozen years back? And weren’t their IQs merely in the low 200s at most, so surely everyone would have heard if America’s highest-paid CEO were also its greatest national genius, thereby confirming the financial reward-structure of our strictly-meritocratic economy? How did our flawless elite media somehow manage to miss the story?
The facts were hardly buried in the small print. For years, his fawning media profiles, at least going back to a 1995 Forbes cover story, have emphasized his exceptional youthful brilliance by noting that he scored a perfect 1600 on the SATs at the tender age of thirteen, a personal detail that his publicists ensured was repeated in numerous other MSM outlets over the years, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Reuters.
Now as it happens, scoring a perfect 1600 on the pre-1995 SAT is hardly a trivial achievement at any age. The overwhelming majority of high-performing high school seniors had taken the exam, and most years those scoring 1600 numbered only in the single digits, occasionally reaching a dozen or so. The exam also had a very high correlation with IQ test results, and indeed the late Henry Harpending once noted that a reasonable case could be made that the old SAT constituted the best high-end intelligence test in the world, being normed on such an enormous population group. Considering that only a small handful of our brightest 17-year-olds annually got a perfect score, an individual who casually achieved that same remarkable feat at the age of 13 must possess an almost superhuman intellect.
By contrast, consider a far lesser mortal such as mathematician Jordan Ellenberg, whose mundane achievements are summarized in his unadorned Wikipedia page. As a child prodigy, he taught himself to read at the age of two, and by fourth grade was a champion in high school math competitions. He went on to win Gold Medals with perfect scores in two different International Math Olympiads, took second place in the national Intel/Westinghouse Science Talent Search, and twice achieved the remarkable honor of being a Putnam Fellow in math at Harvard, where he earned both his A.B. and Ph.D.; later, he also wrote a novel that was a finalist in a national fiction prize. These are hardly intellectual distinctions to sneeze at, and his perfect 1600 on the SAT was fully in keeping with his obvious ability. Indeed, since he got that perfect score as a high school junior, he was very possibly the youngest such student that year in the entire country. However, that last achievement likely came at the age of 16, while his scores at an earlier age were far lower. Indeed, if we exclude young Dauman, I’m not sure there’s ever been a single student under the age of 15 or 16 who ever got a perfect 1600 on the pre-1995 exam.
I have little doubt that if American journalists were a bit more conversant with the higher reaches of academic testing, Dauman’s remarkable test scores would have constituted the headline focus of each of his media profiles, easily eclipsing his wealth or his corporate position. After all, if an individual selected as the new CEO of some large company had also invented a functioning teleportation device as a teenager, which achievement would receive greater national recognition?
In 1985 Harvard’s Robert Klitgaard published his influential book Choosing Elites on our meritocratic methods of college admissions, with a significant focus on academic tests such as the SAT. In a long, extended footnote (pp. 234-235), he provided a intriguing table presenting the rough equivalency between V+M SAT results and Stanford-Binet childhood IQ scores. While I can’t say whether the estimates are correct, they don’t seem unreasonable to me, and I’m not aware of anything better elsewhere. Although the paucity of data causes the actual table to end at IQ=190, it seems pretty clear that a pre-1995 V+M SAT score of 1600 taken at the usual age of 17 would roughly correspond to an IQ=200. When individuals score beyond the validity of tests, we are faced with problems of extrapolation, and perhaps the least-bad approach would be to apply the old-fashioned age-ratio-method of intelligence-testing, suggesting that Dauman’s score of 1600 at the age of 13 corresponded to an IQ of over 260.
Dauman may be as modest as he is brilliant, and it’s intriguing that after his stupendous SAT scores were mentioned in that glowing 2012 NYT profile, they seem to have disappeared from subsequent media mention despite nearly two decades of emphasis, and I very much doubt that my short item characterizing him as “The Third Greatest Genius in Human History” was the primary cause. A cynical observer might even suspect that he had been slightly “embellishing” his scores for all those years, and his lawyers and publicists finally persuaded him to stop doing so.
But this could not possibly be the case. After all, consider the case of poor Scott Thompson, a PayPal executive appointed Yahoo CEO in early 2012. He claimed that decades earlier he had earned his undergraduate degree at obscure Stonehill College, majoring in accounting and computer science, but when it was revealed that his major had solely been in accounting, the controversy forced his immediate resignation.
Meanwhile, Dauman has been locked in an exceptionally bitter battle for control against his mentor’s daughter over Viacom, a media empire worth tens of billions of dollars. If there were even the slightest possibility that he had actually spent decades making utterly preposterous claims about his academic ability, casually assuming that these would never be noticed by the totally credulous and ignorant journalists of the mainstream media, her crack teams of researchers would surely have already uncovered that fact and used it to destroy him. Thus, Dauman’s IQ surely must be in the 260 range, and if he does ultimately lose his control over MTV and Comedy Central, the world might be the beneficiary, if he chooses to focus his vast intellect on finding an immortality serum or a means of traveling faster than light.
On an entirely different matter, I just spent a couple of days reading yet another POW book, Kiss the Boys Goodbye by Monika Jensen-Stevenson and William Stevenson, which left me rather puzzled. Published in 1990 at a point when nearly 70% of the American public believed that there were live POWs still held in Southeast Asia, this text provided remarkable claims of US government involvement in a massive cover-up, along with the sordid motives supposedly responsible. In various later anti-POW books, several former military men who said that they had directly seen imprisoned POWs were dismissed in a few paragraphs as obvious con-men or liars, mostly based on official records; here, those same individuals were discussed and interviewed for pages and finally judged to be credible, while accusations were made that the government was organizing a massive smear campaign against them, including the fabrication of false testimony aimed at destroying their reputations.
The book itself is written in a rather breezy style, and given its shocking claims, I would normally have extreme doubts about its credibility. But the primary author was an award-winning producer at Sixty Minutes, who spent over five years working on the POW project, while her husband and co-author had considerable expertise in intelligence and military matters, especially related to Southeast Asia, and had written a sheaf of books on those topics, including the best-seller A Man Called Intrepid. Many of the charges of government cover-up and conspiracy are based on direct personal experience, so unless we assume that she is a liar or a lunatic, they would seem likely to be correct. And if even merely 10% of the book’s claims are correct, then the POWs almost certainly did exist. So my overall verdict on this new material is “I just don’t know.” Unfortunately, these days I do take this sort of “conspiracy book” much more seriously than I might have six or seven years ago.