It’s not brain surgery, but nor is rocket science

3 minute read

Neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers can hop down from their pedestals.

Your Back Page correspondent was never really a candidate for a career spent cutting brains open or sending projectiles into space.

We remember F=MA but things get a bit swimmy after that, and editing this magazine has forced us to confront the fact that we are embarrassingly, irredeemably squeamish about blood and exposed organs. 

So it seems to us that the core prerequisites for these legendarily tricky jobs are a rock-hard stomach for intricate calculations and gore respectively, more than intelligence as such. 

And in the second Back Page brought to you by the BMJ Christmas issue, we are somewhat vindicated. 

A team of researchers decided to test the validity of the expressions “It’s not brain surgery” and “It’s not rocket science” by testing the intelligence of 329 aerospace engineers and 72 neurosurgeons against each other and against that of the general population. 

They did this using Cognitron’s Great British Intelligence Test, which breaks intelligence down into several aspects of cognition – planning and reasoning, working memory, attention, and emotion processing abilities – and for which a large public dataset exists. 

The team tested the smarties on 12 tasks, and after adjusting for age (= experience in profession), gender and handedness, and comparing them with results from the general public, they found there was not much in it. 

Compared to each other, aerospace engineers showed better mental manipulation abilities than the neurosurgeons, whereas neurosurgeons were better at semantic problem solving. 

The engineers showed no significant differences in any domain from the general public, while the neurosurgeons were able to solve problems faster than the public but had a slower memory recall speed. 

On a serious note the authors point out that the stereotypes around these professions deter women, people from lower socioeconomic groups and people of non-white ethnicity, so breaking them down could aid STEM recruitment. 

In conclusion they write that in situations that do not require rapid problem solving, “it might be more correct to use ‘It’s not brain surgery’, but in situations where rapid information recall is needed this phrase should be avoided. It is possible that both neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers are unnecessarily put on a pedestal and ‘It’s a walk in the park’ or another phrase unrelated to a career might be more appropriate.”

We note from the authors’ affiliations that they are all from the neuroscience side of the divide – so they get points over the engineers for having the curiosity to explore the question in the first place … or were they feeling eclipsed after watching this sketch? 

If you see something that needs to be blasted into the sun, fire it at

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