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An Interview with James Gordon on Genius, Intelligence, and Other Qualities (Part Two)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/05/08


James Gordon was born in 1987 in Denver, CO. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from Adelphi University (NY), and a BA in English from Western Washington University (WA). He has worked a handful of different jobs, including in education and mental health. His hobbies include music, writing, fitness, video games, movies, skiing, and reading. He is also an experimental musician who improvises on the piano and guitar. You can visit his YouTube channel here, where he has an online video journal of some of his music. He lives with his wife in Washington State, where he plans to soon start a family. He discusses: genius and ideology; other qualities for genius; intelligence; intelligence and genius; intelligence and mental illness; genius and apparent lunacy; genius and real lunacy; destructive individuals; Mensa International, Intertel, Triple Nine Society, Prometheus Society, and the Mega Society; and iffiness of IQ.

Keywords: genius, gifted, intelligence, IQ, James Gordon, mental illness.

An Interview with James Gordon on Genius, Intelligence, and Other Qualities (Part Two)[1],[2]*

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Exceptional or profound giftedness tends to come with a wide variety of interests with an admixture of interests becoming an interrelated set of interests. This may explain, in part, the ways in which the different segmentations of the gifted and talented become pluralists in intellectual variety in addition to the connections built between the wider variety of interests with, at some level of intellectual development and level of general intelligence, the creation of the nearly unseen individuals considered pervasively intelligent. One can have the talent without the intellectual background; another can lack the talent and have the intellectual background. In the former case, the individual amounts to an unrefined gem; in the latter case, the individual becomes a highly refined base metal, not a diamond. Both have places in society. The combination or admixture of elements for both in one individual becomes the change makers of history, in general terms. Let’s take an example from recent musical sampling, I have been listening to the late polymath Hildegard von Bingen. Catherine Morris Cox in the studies of genius rank von Bingen amongst the greatest geniuses in history. In listening to some of the musical productions by her, which I have been enjoying, in the Western classical tradition, we someone who composed musical productions, philosophical thought, and writings. Someone who, probably, built a framework of comprehension of the world inclusive of the Christian, mystic, written, philosophical, and musical works together rather than as siloed domains. Someone both talented and integrative of a wide variety of intellectual stimuli. With this example of genius, and with, at least, some knowns about giftedness and talentedness, we have the historical evidence of such individuals arising in the past and some general criteria for a set of qualities bringing about their fruition in the real world, as exemplified in the evidenced examples. In fact, even in those who conduct the music rather than compose it, or those who master the interpretation and delivery of composition as conductors, they can specialize in particular forms, e.g., Herbert von Karajan remained the master of Allegro when alive. Individual character and sensibilities build into this too. At the same time, we can note ethnic supremacist and fascist ideologies in the history of some of these characters too, not von Bingen, but von Karajan with the National Socialist or Nazi Party in German. In general terms, does this seem right to you? If so, how so? If not, why not? How can geniuses come with negative qualities, unsavoury ideological associations, in their personal histories and stories too?

James Gordon: I think there’s a lot of truth to the above. I’m not familiar with all of the individuals you mentioned but look forward to researching them and their work. I do think that genius is very much a subjective idea, I don’t agree there’s one supreme example of type of genius. I go into that in some of the following questions in a little more depth. As for tendencies towards polymathy, that’s pretty common among very intelligent people (in my experience), but so is focus and specialization. I think both are contrastive ways genius can manifest. For those who are polymathic, they still go very deeply into multiple areas, often more deeply than other non-genius experts who specialize. The geniuses who specialize are therefore comparatively like super-experts, and those who cross-fertilize have a globalized understanding of different fields.

There’s only so much energy to go around, and some depth is sacrificed at the expense of breadth. I think that for geniuses it’s relatively easier to rise to the level of expert in one domain and then to move on and become expert in other domains. To push the limits of what expert is means competing with other geniuses who’re specializing. One example would be Da Vinci who was known for his painting and inventions and so forth. He’s considered one of the greatest painters of all time, but other painters are generally somewhat more celebrated (such as Titian and Rembrandt) who were highly specialized in painting. Da Vinci was celebrated more for his overall contributions in variegated disciplines.

About the Nazi leaders’ IQ scores (they were all 140+ if I remember correctly); you have to think about reasons why they could score high. One is to consider that they are sociopaths, who probably don’t experience human emotions and anxieties, and can thus focus singularly on a test. Another is to consider they’re con men and narcissists, who are driven to do well at something if it presents them in a positive light. I think that a lot of morally good, intelligent people probably don’t test optimally. Maybe they get distracted during tests, as they’re preoccupied more about other things of greater relevance. Their IQ could easily be underestimated by a test. By the same token, others’ scores can be inflated (since these people are simply better at taking a test, not necessarily smarter overall). IQ testing can be extremely limited, which I will discuss further.

About the intersection of genius and evil, in addition to those you mentioned, the philosopher Martin Heidegger springs to mind. He was Hitler’s favourite philosopher, and a member of the Nazi party. I’ve read his work Being and Time, and on a philosophical level, it’s quite fascinating, while having no discernible connection to Nazi ideologies. Nietzsche as well was known for being highly influential towards Hitler’s ideology, yet he himself had no anti-Semitic leanings I’m aware of. It’s possible for evil and genius to become mixed up sometimes. Hitler himself was even known for being quite intelligent in some ways, while in other ways incredibly stupid, and of course sociopathic. Humans are complex and are not generally two-dimensional in their characteristics. A person can be a mixed bag of traits and thus judging character is not always simple. Sometimes evil people can even be geniuses or at least of very high intellectual potential. We discuss later on some ways geniuses can become delusional and insane; evil itself being related to insanity.

2. Jacobsen: What might be some other considerations for the inclusion of genius category, other qualities?

Gordon: In my eyes, genius is a very open-ended term which people take to mean different things. I feel that I’ve generally been more inclusive in how I treat it. To me, someone being a genius doesn’t mean they have to be famous or in the extreme minority of high intellects, like for example Albert Einstein (the epitome of genius as a household name), or a noted scientist from a long list of Nobel Prize Winners (whom only those interested in the field would know about). I think genius can be a relatively mundane and ordinary thing, because we all possess it to some degree, as human beings. The celebrity geniuses we hear about in society are extraordinary and blatant manifestations of the essential genius in all people, and furthermore are all cases of ideal circumstances for those genius’ rise to fame and recognition. Even those who seem to be anything but geniuses, for example the intellectually disabled or the clinically insane, often do show genius traits albeit in isolated and limited ways.

Thus I feel it is open to interpretation, what genius is (like art, it can be in the eye of the beholder). There are plenty of people who you can’t easily argue are not geniuses, and maybe these are the examples we can turn to as the supreme examples and definition – but I feel this is too exclusive, and diminishes the value of other, less obvious and maybe more subtle manifestations of genius. One aspect of genius is originality and breaking new ground, which can mean that not everyone agrees with them (so these geniuses may not become quite as popular).

There is definitely a spectrum, and I think it’s possible to have it to varying degrees. The vast majority of people in general will not be at the socially-recognized level of Nobel Prize winners, or celebrity stars receiving accolades for their creativity (award-winning actors, directors, writers, musicians, artists, etc). Similarly, I don’t feel genius should be reserved for the elite in society. I can only imagine that throughout history, many geniuses have remained largely undiscovered. It’s not that they weren’t real geniuses, but rather that the world wasn’t ready for their intellect or their minds were wasted and lost from society’s records. To put it simply, many genius intellects are likely not appreciated or known widely for many for their gifts. We can look to celebrated geniuses to get a sense for what is likely being missed out on among the unknown.

3. Jacobsen: What is intelligence?

Gordon: It depends who you ask, but I think of it in terms of variegated proficiencies. It’s very subjective to whatever context you’re referring to. It can relate to practicality, empathy, creativity, resourcefulness, persuasion; it can be mainly logical, social, linguistic, mathematical, etc. There are lots of paradigms out there about multiple intelligences. There are so many aspects to it that it can be difficult to generalize. It’s usually a positive thing, but if not balanced by other healthy traits, it can be used for ill means. In its purest form I think it relates to thinking; how well someone thinks, often preferring the mind more than the body. Often intelligence thus relates to thought processes which are analytical, creative, abstract, and systematic. It can have strong ties to knowledge, wisdom, and creativity. Mental brilliance as it can be recognized is maybe the most obvious form of intelligence, but it can be noticed in many other capacities as well (athletic ability for example is a contrastive kind of intelligence). The brain is connected to all human functions, so anyone doing something very well with their body is showing intelligence; my view of intelligence is fairly holistic.

4. Jacobsen: What relates genius and intelligence as a set if the two can be considered as a set together?

Gordon: I see one clear route from intelligence to genius, which is matter of degree. Find me someone who is intelligent enough, and I have little problem calling them a genius. Otherwise, genius that is not simply extreme intelligence, must also involve creativity, originality, inventiveness, innovation, and remarkable cleverness. I think that to the non-genius, a genius’s gifts seem almost superhuman. One looks at their work and thinks “how could anyone possibly come up with this or achieve this?”, it seems almost unfathomable. Yet at the same time, geniuses can often be remarkable at simplifying their discoveries and creations for others, breaking down what does seem complex into simpler parts.  I think many of us feel that we know genius when we see it, but my hope is that we can judge for ourselves rather than going strictly by what society tells us.

5. Jacobsen: Does high intelligence seem to protect against or amplify mental illness?

Gordon: I think it goes both ways. It can protect, by virtue of the grounding influence of logic, rationality, wisdom, resourcefulness, and so on. It can also amplify, by virtue of feeling mental stress, being high-strung, thinking too much, being sensitive, and not fitting in with society.

6. Jacobsen: Why does genius, sometimes, seem indistinguishable from lunacy?

Gordon: Because they have some things in common. Both involve perceiving the world in special ways, which others may have some difficulty seeing, at least without closer inspection. Both tend to be isolated and to some degree preoccupied within their minds, whether it be an affliction or an inspiration. Also, sometimes both are present in a person, making it hard to know where one ends and the other begins.

7. Jacobsen: How does genius turn into true lunacy, where a lunatic thinks they’ve discovered the secret sauce of the universe?

Gordon: I think that there are probably massive groups of people who believe they’ve discovered the secret recipe and encourage one another in their beliefs, so it’s possible for a genius to become influenced by such groups, especially if their giftedness is rather specific and leaves them naive in other ways. When the esoteric key is truly believed to be theirs alone, this may result from over-active imaginations which are connected to their creative genius, but if left unchecked, can overpower their rationality. Social eccentricity can exacerbate this. Reality can thus blend with fantasy until the two are intertwined.

I think geniuses can be subject as others are to confirmation bias; to put it simply, they believe things because they want to believe them (e.g. Einstein rejecting quantum mechanics); or they believe them out of fear (Newton being God-fearing). I attribute this to the main reason why people are religious. It’s more comforting to believe there’s life after death than there’s death after life, possibly as a reward for good behavior; and conversely it is easy to be motivated by a fear of punishment. People want things to make sense in a sometimes unprovable way. But what makes sense to me on a logical level? Personally, I can most easily imagine that things end, and go back to how they were before I was born, despite the fact that this isn’t exactly a comforting notion (but I guess it’s more comforting than hell). This kind of ordinary bias towards confirming what we want to believe can lead to individual lunacy, which is really not so much different from the propagation of many cherished belief systems in our world.

8. Jacobsen: How can high-IQ communities marginalize and isolate individuals who have delusions of grandeur and, in essence, act as destructive rather than constructive forces within them?

Gordon: It works the same way as a placebo does. If you believe something, it will do things to you, whether it’s true or not. If to you a test is evidence that you’re a genius and furthermore there are others who side with you, that may be all you need to develop a grandiose complex about it. There could be little to no evidence of genius in your life outside of this particular domain. That’s why I’m suspicious of cultish dynamics in IQ world (and other places). I can’t take away from people their promising scores, but I can scrutinize the tests/results, and call into question what it all means (as I can do for scores I myself have received). Again it’s a matter of how you take this information.

I can make a decent argument stating that IQ 140+ qualifies as genius, therefore some thus qualified group has good reason to call themselves geniuses. However, I could also come from another angle and say it’s really not very good proof of genius. It’s all a matter of perspective. I think both attitudes can be destructive. You don’t want to be in denial about something and say “oh whatever, these people can’t be that smart, they aren’t geniuses, they’re just delusional narcissists” and dismiss all of it. Yet at the same time it’s also clearly the wrong thing to take it as written in stone, this is too farfetched and premature of a conclusion to draw. For me, the right stance is to be somewhere in the middle; to be educated and rational about it.

9. Jacobsen: Wikipedia’s editorial staff after deliberation and debate narrowed down the five main reliable high-IQ societies to Mensa International, Intertel, Triple Nine Society, Prometheus Society, and the Mega Society. What makes reliable, democratic, and constructive high-IQ societies such as these function better than most or others? Why are the segmentations of these different high-IQ societies important for the delivering of cognitive-rarity relevant material to its members? 

Gordon: These are some of the larger and longer-standing societies, with stricter admissions criteria. I know that at least Mensa has their own test. I believe all the others only accept supervised or very specific tests. I believe some of these also have fees. Do the above attributes lead to more constructive, reliable, and democratic societies? I’m not so sure. If there are fees, then it’s possible they’re being used for constructive administrative purposes. As for the stricter admissions, maybe to some it matters to be in a group that only accepts certain kinds of tests, and these carefully administered tests are harder to cheat on. Of course groups are welcome to do whatever they want with regards to their own criteria. The “cognitive-rarity relevant material” is generally just these people’s communication with one another.

10. Jacobsen: Above 4-sigma, intelligence tests become iffy, wobbly. Why?

Gordon: I believe they are inherently iffy at all levels, for fairly evident reasons, but people seem to readily admit this more at the highest levels. This might be because generally speaking, IQ tests weren’t really invented for the purpose of measuring intelligence per se, but rather one’s cognitive functioning from a more clinical standpoint. This is why they’re administered by psychologists, who are concerned mainly with understanding their consumers’ minds so as to better help them with whatever difficulties they’re experiencing. This is IQ test companies’ way of pointing out that they’re not really in the business of assessing whether or not you’re a genius. What they’re trying to do is figure out how well your mind works with regards to what is broadly defined as “intelligence”, and give you a statistical idea of where you are on the bell curve compared to your peers (with which they have done some correlations and studies to give us an idea of what exactly that score may mean in the broader context).

If the score is really low, you can see how this would help mental health professionals to see inside of their client or patient’s perspective; similarly, if it is very high, or average. Whatever the score may be, this can be illuminating information to have. You might say they’re being used “off-label” to diagnose genius (and the non-psychologist spin-off tests focus more on simply targeting how smart you are). IQ is one metric psychologists like to use because it helps to show how clearly, efficiently, effectively, logically (and so forth) the person can think. The statistical score of course becomes less precise at the upper levels (studying the bell curve and statistics helps understand why that is). Most of the tests don’t measure higher than 155 or 160, partly because the statistics will not hold up very well, and because it’s hard to design a test which they feel can do that. I believe there’s the WAIS extended scale you can take for 160+ which is seen as very experimental and basically inaccurate (like other high range tests).

Offshoots from these tests are all the various ones you find that are not administered by psychologists, which include Mensa’s test (being among the more widespread variety). These tests measure in some ways a different kind of IQ, which uses the same statistical system (standard deviation set at 15 or 16, with 100 as average). Often (in the high range world) these are correlated with supervised tests. I think I disagree with this parallel, because the independent tests are outside of the realm of psychology. This is strictly psychometrics (the measurement of one’s mental capacity to be used for social hierarchical purposes). This is where the stratification and status comes in, seeing people’s IQ scores as static properties that are fixed, objective, and important (which I think many people are putting too much weight in and this is socially problematic). Usually a psychologist only administers an IQ test if he feels it’s necessary, which isn’t all that often. Of course parents can influence this if their child is seeing a psychologist, often the intention is to help get a sense for how well they can do academically (going by what the test finds) versus how well they actually do.

Any specific IQ test is quite limited in what it can measure, and recognizing that they are all different helps illustrate how the assumption that they’re assessing the same kind of “IQ”, in the same accurate way is not at all realistic. Granted, if you do poorly on one test, that’s significant on some level, but let the punishment fit the crime (the same goes for high scores). Because you scored low doesn’t mean you’re forever to be branded as an imbecile, any more than scoring high means you’re a verified genius. If you performed badly or mediocrely on a test and do well in life, it’s very possible the score isn’t accurate, for potentially a variety of reasons. I have a hard time trusting a test that would score a Feynman 125 or a Kasparov 135 (a case of IQ tests clearly failing the test taker).

A high score is more likely to be accurate, because you have to answer the questions right in the first place, but it still may not correlate with other balanced traits in the test-taker. Maybe you’re good at the test and that’s mostly it. I’ve discovered quite a bit of what I perceive to be ignorance among high scorers. Again, correlative studies have been done to help shed light on what the score can and should suggest. If you take no tests at all, surely you can get a sense for what your “relative IQ” might be based on other tasks; tests aren’t necessary. If you absolutely want to take a test, then I would recommend taking more than just one, and educating yourself about the various tests out there, and what they can and can’t do (to get to better know your own abilities and also the various tests’ unique qualities).

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] M.F.A., Creative Writing, Adelphi University (NY); B.A., English, Western Washington University (WA).

[2] Individual Publication Date: May 8, 2020:; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2020:

*High range testing (HRT) should be taken with honest skepticism grounded in the limited empirical development of the field at present, even in spite of honest and sincere efforts. If a higher general intelligence score, then the greater the variability in, and margin of error in, the general intelligence scores because of the greater rarity in the population.


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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