According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Marilyn vos Savant is the world's smartest person. But many have tried to challenge that title.
Marilyn vos Savant is a New York magazine columnist, businesswoman, playwright, and more. But her most well-known claim-to-fame is her brain: Marilyn vos Savant is known as the person with highest IQ in the world. But when it comes down to it, does IQ really matter?
Rising To Fame With The World’s Highest IQ
By all accounts, as the world’s record-holder for highest IQ, Marilyn vos Savant lived a largely unremarkable childhood. She was born Marilyn Mach in 1946 in St. Louis, Missouri. She came from a humble family of coal miners (both her grandfathers worked in the mines), and her parents were immigrants from Germany and Italy.
Interestingly — or perhaps serendipitously — both sides of Marilyn’s family have surnames with ‘Savant’ in them. Her paternal grandmother’s surname was Savant while her maternal grandfather passed on the ‘von Savant’ surname to Marilyn’s mother. The word ‘savant’ refers to “a learned person,” a fitting name for her in retrospect.
Perhaps intuitively predicting the name would bring her good fortune, Marilyn decided to adopt her mother’s maiden name as her own.
Growing up, as a student she excelled at science and math. But when Marilyn von Savant turned 10, her life changed forever.
The young Marilyn’s intelligence was tested using two types of IQ tests — one was the Stanford-Binet test, which focuses on verbal abilities using five components as indicators of intelligence and was originally designed to gauge mental deficiencies among children.
The other test Marilyn was subjected to was Hoeflin’s Mega Test. The prodigy scored extremely high on both tests.
Her unbelievably high IQ level of 228 had Marilyn vos Savant listed in the Guinness Book of World Records Hall of Fame for “Highest I.Q.” from 1986 to 1989.
But debates about the accuracy of measuring intelligence using rigid IQ tests began to surface, and so the “Highest I.Q.” category was discontinued by Guinness in 1990, making vos Savant the last person known to hold the record.
Despite her high intelligence, Marilyn vos Savant says that her parents treated her like any other child they had.
“They weren’t thinking about focusing on the kids at all. The whole idea was to just be independent, earn a living, and no one really paid much attention to me actually,” Vos Savant said in an interview about her simple upbringing. “Mostly because I was a girl.”
But Marilyn vos Savant wasn’t just good at science and math, she had also developed a passion for writing. As a teenager, she worked at her father’s general store while contributing clips to local magazines under a pseudonym.
When it came time for college, the budding intellect didn’t set her sights on an Ivy League school as one would assume the world’s smartest person would do. Instead, she enrolled at Meramec Community College then later studied philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis. However, she dropped out of college after two years to help run the family’s investment business.
By the 1980s, Marilyn vos Savant’s fame as the person with the highest IQ in the world continued to follow her. Even after her record was discontinued from the Guinness Book, Marilyn vos Savant’s name was still on everyone’s lips.
Armed with her astounding IQ and good looks, vos Savant landed on the covers of major magazines and newspapers — one a joint New York magazine cover with her equally-smart husband, Robert Jarvik who invented the Jarvik-7 artificial heart — and she even did a few televised interviews, including a rather awkward 1986 appearance on Late Night with David Letterman.
She eventually moved to New York City to pursue a career in writing and became a columnist for Parade magazine which had done a previously popular profile on Marilyn vos Savant. Seeing the enthusiasm from readers that vos Savant’s “world’s smartest” title generated, the magazine offered her the job.
The column was named “Ask Marilyn” and readers wrote in to vos Savant to inquire about various questions related to academia, science, and logic puzzles.
The High Price Of Genius
Being known as the smartest person in the world somehow signaled an invite for people to constantly challenge her intelligence, something that became compounded by the rampant sexism of the time.
Indeed, vos Savant has made it clear that she received little encouragement as a young girl to use her talent to her highest potential. During the 1950s, when she was discovered to be a genius, women weren’t considered to be “suited to do anything in particular with their intelligence, so I wasn’t encouraged in any way whatsoever.”
Her interview on David Letterman, for example, shows the acclaimed talk show host half-jokingly challenging her high IQ.
“Do you do smart things?” Letterman asked early on in the interview. Later, after a brief banter between him and vos Savant, he proclaimed, “You know, I think I’m smarter than you are” and “This is not the world’s smartest person!”
Then, there was the blown-up controversy brought on by an innocent question submitted to Marilyn vos Savant’s column.
In 1991, a reader wrote vos Savant asking her to solve a popular mathematical question known as the Monty Hall question. The name comes from the host of the beloved game show Let’s Make A Deal which the question shares similarities with. It went like this:
“Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the other doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, ‘Do you want to pick door No. 2?’ Is it to your advantage to take the switch?”
Marilyn vos Savant wrote back to the reader through her column like it was any other regular question she had dealt with, and answered, “Yes; you should switch… The first door has a 1/3 chance of winning, but the second door has a 2/3 chance.”
The simple answer caused an unexpected uproar. The controversy hadn’t just erupted among the magazine’s loyal followers, it quickly spread to academic and scientific circles, too.
The column elicited at least 10,000 letters to the magazine, many of which were writing in strong rebuke against vos Savant’s answer.
A lot of the haughty letters were so appalled by what they considered an inadequate answer by vos Savant, the world’s smartest person, that they resorted to calling her names and using demeaning language to attack her intelligence.
“You blew it, and you blew it big! Since you seem to have difficulty grasping the basic principle at work here, I’ll explain,” read one letter.
One person suggested that “Maybe women look at math problems differently than men,” while another person wrote simply, “You are the goat!”
A report about the bizarre backlash by the New York Times estimated that among the nasty letters that Marilyn vos Savant received “close to 1,000 carried signatures with Ph.D.’s, and many were on letterheads of mathematics and science departments.”
For the record, a precise answer to the Monty Hall question has been the subject of serious academic debate for decades, even long before Marilyn vos Savant’s column came around.
In 1959, an earlier iteration of the probability question known as the Three Prisoner Problem was analyzed by famed mathematician and scholar Martin Gardner in the journal Scientific American. Gardner admitted that the question was “a wonderfully confusing little problem” and distinctly noted that “in no other branch of mathematics is it so easy for experts to blunder as in probability theory.”
While many experts who analyzed the question have since declared vos Savant to be correct in her answer — leading to a few embarrassing public apologies from detractors — others believe that a number of factors that may have not been taken into consideration did not make vos Savant entirely correct, either.
In spite of the harsh judgement and criticism she’s received, Marilyn vos Savant has continued to live her life largely outside of the glaring media spotlight.
She went on to become a board member of the National Council on Economic Education, and is on the advisory boards of the National Association for Gifted Children and the National Women’s History Museum.
She still runs her column “Ask Marilyn” and lives with her husband in Manhattan.
What’s In An IQ Number?
The average IQ of a person is between 85 and 115. But how important is an IQ test score to determine someone’s intelligence?
Since she was proclaimed as the person with the highest IQ in the world decades ago, there have been disputes over the accuracy of the tests given to Marilyn vos Savant to measure her IQ.
The Stanford-Binet test and the Hoeflin Mega Test that vos Savant took when she was young have gone through multiple iterations since, and have had their methods of measurement contested.
But debate among experts over the accuracy of the different IQ tests that exist has happened for quite some time and continues until this day. One of the biggest things that skeptics often point out is that it is difficult to create an intelligence test that is purely made without biased factors that could impact a person’s score depending on their background or psychological well-being.
IQ tests have been most controversial when used for education placement of students.
Research has shown that admissions to special or gifted classes that rely solely on their IQ score or any other singular test often puts kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds at a disadvantage.
Educators in particular are typically in favor of a more holistic approach when it comes to measuring the intelligence of students by evaluating them using a combination of metrics, including their creativity and motivation.
Marilyn vos Savant would be the first to say that a high IQ score isn’t the only factor that determines a person’s intelligence. According to the certified genius, when it comes to smarts there are a number of things at play, even for those we consider as ‘experts’.
“When we call upon experts we hear them say whatever it is they have to say, but that doesn’t mean they have any analytical ability, that doesn’t mean they have the ability to process the information at hand — that’s really more what intelligence is,” vos Savant said.
The same goes for people who are actually smart, and why the most intelligent people are not always the ones taking the lead in this world. For example, a gifted scientist might have an introverted personality or lack leadership skills.
At the end of the day, as the world’s smartest person Marilyn vos Savant put it: “There are all different kinds of skills… we all have this mix of skills.”