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Dr. Jonathan Wai: Research Scientist, Talent Identification Program, Duke University & Case Western Reserve University (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2014/09/01


Part one of a three-part in-depth, broad interview with Research Scientist, Dr. Jonathan Wai, of the Talent Identification Program, Duke University, and Case Western Reserve University.  He discusses the following subject-matter: family background regarding culture, geography, and language; development; universalizing intelligence testing with non-verbal tests; commentary on new global increases in flourishing with a focus on India and Mainland China, and an example of Mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan; Finding The Next EinsteinWho’s Smarter? Republicans and Democrats in Congress (2013), and the top 1% of the ability spectrum based on extremely high standardized test scores for admissions to highly selective undergraduate and graduate institutions; Why the SAT Needs to Be Harder (2014)’Could We Create Another Einstein? (2012), and serving those with intellectual and creative talent; Even Nerds Need to be Appropriately Challenged (2014), and focus on average and below-average students with consequential neglect on the talented sector of the young; interview with Dr. James Flynn called Can The Magic of Great Literature Take You Around The World? (2011), and problem with a-historicity of incoming students.

Keywords: ‘g’, Arthur Jensen, Bellingham, Case Western Reserve University,communists, Dr. James Flynn, Dr. Jonathan Wai, Duke University,engineering, G. H. Hardy, Hong Kong, IQ Tests, Mathematician, Mega Test, physics, Robert Kanigel, Shanghai, Srinivasa Ramanujan,Talent Identification Program, Titan Test, Washington.

1. In terms of geography, culture, and language, where does your family background reside?  How do you find this influencing your development?

My father was born in Hong Kong.  My mother was born in Shanghai.  They met as graduate students in the U.S.  They were educated in engineering and physics, respectively, so they valued these disciplines, and education, quite highly.  My mother would often tell me the story of her father, who was wealthy before the communists came, took away everything, and sent him to jail for being a capitalist.  My grandfather, at age 50, would start over again in Hong Kong with next to nothing, and become a successful entrepreneur all over again.  The idea that someone with brains and hard work can rise from anywhere is something I heard of often when growing up, because it was my grandfather’s story.  It was also my parent’s story.

2. How did you find developing from childhood through adolescence into young adulthood?

I was born and raised in Bellingham, Washington and enjoyed both academics as well as sports.  I played just about every sport growing up, focusing on soccer and tennis at a competitive level.  Probably one academic activity I have always enjoyed is reading.  I remember going every week to the public library to check out piles of books as a kid.  Today, I am fortunate that as a researcher and writer reading is a part of my job.  I get up every day and have the opportunity to read, think, and create.  I have never stopped reading.

3. In terms of universalizing the testing of intelligence, what do you see in the future for high-range non-verbal tests?  How will this change general intelligence testing and the identification of gifted individuals?

In college, I spent some time solving puzzles, which I have always enjoyed.  Exploring puzzles online led me to what one might call “high-range tests” or basically extremely difficult puzzles that you could take as much time as you wanted to solve.  I spent some time solving these puzzles, which were designed to be IQ tests with greater headroom, and met a lot of interesting people from around the world who also enjoyed creating and solving such puzzles.  I don’t know if this will ever be standard practice for intelligence testing, because most people don’t have the free time to take an extremely difficult untimed puzzle solving challenge than can span weeks, months, or even longer.  I don’t know what the future of intelligence testing will hold, but see Arthur Jensen’s Clocking The Mind for a vision of intelligence testing that is based on reaction time, nearly the opposite of an untimed puzzle test.

4. For those having the talent, but lacking the opportunity – especially in India and Mainland China, what of those hundreds of millions of people having increasing standards of living and the educational opportunities to take advantage of natural talent for further flourishing? On the one hand, the increased access for personal and global gain of utilizing the best human talent in international contexts.  On the other hand, the allowance – based on technological innovations and increased standards of living – of presenting the real possibility for human flourishing at all levels, i.e. the potential for a global renaissance of the human spirit in, at a minimum, intellectual terms. How do you see identification in the long-term for the high-end (4/5/6 standard deviations, or SD, above the norm)?  What of ‘g’ tests for those ranges above the relatively high ceiling of the Ravens Advanced Progressive Matrices (RAPM)?

One of the greatest stories of talent from a poor background was that of the Indian Mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, which I first read about in the great science writer Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity.  However, in Ramanujan’s case, he was still “discovered” by G. H. Hardy, yet there are likely a number of people with similar potential who did not end up flourishing.  One of the most systematic and cost effective ways to identify talent is to make sure that all students are first given an opportunity for a good education, but also that they are tested.  Although testing is viewed as favoring wealthy students, in fact testing is entirely objective in the sense that the test does not know or care what you look like, how much money you or your parents have, and will measure with high reliability and validity your degree of competence and what you are ready for educationally.

5. While reading through all of your Finding The Next Einstein and academic work to date, I noticed the common themes of creativity, intelligence – naturally, and critiques of the gifted world – especially regarding assistance to the gifted. Why did you begin writing this series of articles?  Where did your interest in the topic originate?

I am a nerd.  I have a soft spot for nerds.  I have also always recognized that there is wide variation in brainpower, creativity, and problem solving ability.  I always enjoyed reading biographies of great people because I tried to learn how they solved problems and overcame difficulties, both personal and professional.  How did these people become successful?  Although there are many factors at work, including many years of hard work, the role of creative brainpower intrigued me.  I also enjoy the craft of writing, and decided I would start trying to educate the public about my areas of expertise and maybe even help some talented kids.

6. Of particular note in your article Who’s Smarter? Republicans and Democrats in Congress (2013), though a small point from a relatively short piece, you provide a bar graph of those in various fields sufficing to qualify for the top 1% of the ability spectrum based on requiring extremely high standardized test scores for admissions to highly selective, and ‘elite’, undergraduate and graduate institutions.  What did you find?

This bar graph was taken from my research article Investigating America’s Elite.  Basically I found that among Fortune 500 CEOs, billionaires, federal judges, Senators, and House members, a larger portion of each of these groups were in the top 1% of cognitive ability.  This shows that the U.S. elite are largely drawn from the cognitive elite.  Also, a lot of really smart and motivated people end up attending the very top schools in the U.S.

7. You wrote an article on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) entitled Why the SAT Needs to Be Harder (2014). In short, it does not discriminate the highest levels of ability well-enough.  There exist many tests with 4+ standard deviation (SD) ceilings within many societies, e.g. the Mega Society’s (one-in-a-million cutoff) Titan Test or Mega Test.  What about coordinating with those involved in the construction of tests at the high-range to develop SAT-style questions to probe the ultra-high range of 4 and 5 sigma?  Or to the prior point, what about constructing a non-verbal/’culture fair’ test with high ceiling at 4.5 or 5 SD?

This is an intriguing idea.  Although I enjoy high range tests and puzzles, I’m not entirely sure what constructs they measure.  One solution to the problem you describe is to use a test such as the SAT designed for the average 17-year-old on a talented student at a much younger age.  This provides sufficient headroom for the talented student and also gives the benefit of reliability and validity in a timed setting.

8. You close the excellent article, Could We Create Another Einstein? (2012), with “Overall, Creating Innovators is an important book because it emphasizes developing the talent of students who are essential to the future of America and profiles some extremely bright minds and their parents, teachers, and mentors to provide some insights into ways to develop intellectual and creative talent.” How can we best serve those of exceptional intellectual and creative talent?

The key, really, is to make sure that all students are intellectually stimulated each day and are learning something new.  Another way I think we can serve talented students is to help them become challenged early and in many areas so they might develop a sense of humility and understand what it means to fail.  Many of these students end up in leadership positions in society where they make decisions that impact people of various levels of ability, including people who are very different from them.  So they need to be wise and humble in addition to being smart.

9. I felt struck by a statement in Even Nerds Need to be Appropriately Challenged (2014), “A majority of Americans believe in equity rather than excellence.” It seems to argue for a pervasive cultural value of mediocrity based on disadvantaging the talented for the sake of equity with the average and below-average.  What do you think?  Would you change this cultural value?  If so, how would you restructure the educational funding based on the changes to the cultural value?

For whatever reason, in the U.S. today the culture places a primary value on helping below average and average students.  I think we should definitely help these students, but also not forget about challenging talented students.

10. You conducted an interview with Dr. James Flynn called Can The Magic of Great Literature Take You Around The World? (2011). In it, he states, “Anyone who is a-historical lacks autonomy.  They live in the bubble of the present that is defined for them by their government and the media.  They have no accumulated knowledge that allows them to criticize what they are told.”  How would you remedy this problem with the incoming generations of students?

There is tendency in each new generation to want to create something new, to distinguish itself from past generations.  And it is true that the young often will find new ways of innovating that will bring us ideas and things that we never dreamed of.  However, an understanding and appreciation of the past is important especially for students who end up rising to positions of leadership in society, because there are many patterns in history that can teach new generations about what has already been done so that they don’t repeat those patterns, or at least understand the patterns they see around them in society, which seem to arise often.  The solution is that students should have a deep appreciation for and education in history, but also not be constrained by that history in a way that prevents them from innovating in an entirely different manner.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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