In 2002, a University of Wisconsin study published data on the average intelligence quotient (IQ) of various occupations. Medical doctors and natural scientists were among the top. Of course, the researchers graciously included “college professors” too. What a coincidence…
However, where did the idiom, “It’s not brain surgery” originate? It may have started around the 1960s, in line with the other common expression, “It’s not rocket science”. Both are thought to have American etymology… we tend to take credit for most things. In post-war times, there was particular regard for science and professional expertise. However it was the Germans (Einstein and others) we immigrated, who were considered to be the “rocket scientists”. Following the 1957 launch of Sputnik-1, President Eisenhower reportedly answered the question of how the Russians “got there first” with, “Their Germans are better than our Germans
In the 1950s and later, both rocket science and brain surgery were generally accepted as being intellectually superior over the average Joe.
However the actually written reference, “It’s not brain surgery”, may have first appeared in the 1980s relating to football. A 1985 quote: “Coaching football is not rocket science and it’s not brain surgery. It’s a game, nothing more.” After recently watching the documentary, “All-Madden” I particularly admire football coaches like John Madden, but deep down may have preferred a more sophisticated literary genealogy of the idiom.
Since various Presidents have been intellectually criticized by being attributed the mixed metaphor, “It’s not rocket surgery”.
The lexicographers at the American Heritage Dictionary recently redefined the phrase, “It’s not brain surgery”, due to the impact of neurosurgeon and Republican Presidential candidate, Ben Carson. Whereas the previous meaning was meant to chide someone for having difficulty accomplishing a straightforward task, Heritage now defines it as meaning, “not difficult, accurate, or well-informed”. This may be due to some of Dr. Carson’s public political statements, which were criticized by the Left.
Yet, which phrase, “It’s not rocket science” or “It’s not brain surgery” is better deserved, you may ask? A funny BBC sketch from 2009 hysterically tackled the issue. I suggest a look here.
However, a just-slightly-more serious study was recently published out of the UK. Researchers actually assessed 600 aerospace engineers and 148 neurosurgeons to see who is smarter, and how each compared to the general population. The results show that both were equally matched across most domains, but rocket scientists showed better mental manipulation abilities, while neurosurgeons were better at semantic problem solving (retrieving word meanings- rare word definitions and verbal analogies). Compared to the general population, rocket scientists were about the same. Neurosurgeons were found to solve problems faster than the general population.
In the end, it may no longer be appropriate to place rocket scientists or neurosurgeons on an intellectual pedestal. There’s a wide variety of cognitive abilities amongst the population at large.