In English-speaking countries, there are idioms that indirectly extol the cognitive abilities of people working in these two fields of science. A humorous study, published in the Christmas issue of the British journal BMJ, disproves that these professionals have exceptional attributes.
In Spain, the phrase “es pan comido” or “está chupado” (it’s a piece of cake) is used to emphasise that something is very easy to do. Meanwhile, in the English-speaking world, they say that something “is not rocket science” or “is not brain surgery” to express something similar.
Turned around, both phrases indicate that both aerospace engineering and neurosurgery are two fields of science that are only suitable for people with more cognitive ability than the average population.
But is this true? A humorous study published in the Christmas issue of the British journal BMJ says not.
Participants completed an online test measuring six different aspects of cognition.
To help settle the age-old argument over which phrase – “not brain surgery” or “not rocket science” – is more appropriate for the context, researchers compared the intelligence of 329 aerospace engineers and 72 neurosurgeons with 18,257 members of the general population.
All participants completed a validated online test measuring six different aspects (domains) of cognition, ranging from planning and reasoning to working memory, attention and emotion processing abilities.
The analysis also took into accounts potentially influential factors such as gender, laterality, and years of experience in their speciality.
No significant difference
The results show that aerospace engineers and neurosurgeons were equal in most domains, but differed in two respects, with the former showing better mental manipulation skills, while the latter was better at semantic problem-solving.
When these scores were compared with those of the general population, aerospace engineers showed no significant differences in any domain.
Despite the stereotypes represented by the phrases “it’s not aerospace science” and “it’s not brain surgery”, all three groups (engineers, neurosurgeons and the general population) showed a broad range of cognitive abilities
Neurosurgeons were able to solve problems faster than the general population but showed slower recall speed.
The results of the study suggest that despite the stereotypes represented by the phrases “not aerospace science” and “not brain surgery”, all three groups showed a wide range of cognitive abilities, according to the researchers, who also acknowledge that this is an observational study and does not represent the overall range of aerospace engineers and neurosurgeons.
For the study’s authors, the results demonstrate that both neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers would be unnecessarily placed on a pedestal and that, on a practical level, using another phrase to highlight the ease of a task, such as “it’s like a walk in the park”, would be more appropriate.
Usher, Hellyer, et al. “It’s not rocket science” and “It’s not brain surgery”-“It’s a walk in the park”: prospective comparative study. BMJ, 2021