I found this little gem while I was trying to do a little fact-check: “It’s not rocket science” and “It’s not brain surgery”

This morning my good friend and colleague Geert De Meyer sent me this:

And you know me, I immediately wanted to check if this claim is true. No luck, so far, but while working on this, I found this little gem of a study by Inga Usher and colleagues, published in BMJ:

Objective To compare cognitive testing scores in neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers to help settle the age old argument of which phrase—“It’s not brain surgery” or “It’s not rocket science”—is most deserved.

Design International prospective comparative study.

Setting United Kingdom, Europe, the United States, and Canada.

Participants 748 people (600 aerospace engineers and 148 neurosurgeons). After data cleaning, 401 complete datasets were included in the final analysis (329 aerospace engineers and 72 neurosurgeons).

Main outcome measures Validated online test (Cognitron’s Great British Intelligence Test) measuring distinct aspects of cognition, spanning planning and reasoning, working memory, attention, and emotion processing abilities.

Results The neurosurgeons showed significantly higher scores than the aerospace engineers in semantic problem solving (difference 0.33, 95% confidence interval 0.13 to 0.52). Aerospace engineers showed significantly higher scores in mental manipulation and attention (−0.29, −0.48 to −0.09). No difference was found between groups in domain scores for memory (−0.18, −0.40 to 0.03), spatial problem solving (−0.19, −0.39 to 0.01), problem solving speed (0.03, −0.20 to 0.25), and memory recall speed (0.12, −0.10 to 0.35). When each group’s scores for the six domains were compared with those in the general population, only two differences were significant: the neurosurgeons’ problem solving speed was quicker (mean z score 0.24, 95% confidence interval 0.07 to 0.41) and their memory recall speed was slower (−0.19, −0.34 to −0.04).

Conclusions In situations that do not require rapid problem solving, it might be more correct to use the phrase “It’s not brain surgery.” It is possible that both neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers are unnecessarily placed on a pedestal and that “It’s a walk in the park” or another phrase unrelated to careers might be more appropriate. Other specialties might deserve to be on that pedestal, and future work should aim to determine the most deserving profession.

P.S.: if somebody could help me track the source of the original claim this post started with, let me know! I already checked a couple of books by Tina Boogren.

One thought on “I found this little gem while I was trying to do a little fact-check: “It’s not rocket science” and “It’s not brain surgery”

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