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  • “It’s not rocket science” and “It’s not brain surgery”—“It’s a walk in the park”: prospective comparative study

“It’s not rocket science” and “It’s not brain surgery” are common phrases that describe concepts or tasks that are easily understood or performed. Other phrases such as “It’s a piece of cake” or “It’s a walk in the park” have similar meanings, but the two related to the aerospace industry and neurosurgery are unique in their association with professions. The phrase “It’s not rocket science” is thought to have originated in America in the 1950s when German rocket scientists were brought over to support the developing space programme and design of military rockets—both endeavours that were considered intellectually challenging. By the 1970s “It’s not rocket science” had become embedded in American culture, when it started to appear in newspaper articles. The origin of “It’s not brain surgery” is less clear. It is tempting to speculate that the pioneering techniques of the polymath and neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing captured the attention of the public and promulgated the phrase.

The interchangeable use of “It’s not rocket science” and “It’s not brain surgery” and their association with professions renders comparison inevitable. In a sketch by UK comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb, a boastful neurosurgeon is put in his place by a rocket scientist who says “Brain surgery . . . it’s not exactly rocket science is it?” Although some public debate has occurred as to which pursuit is more difficult, it seems that the two phrases have not been subjected to rigorous scientific scrutiny.

The main purpose of our study was to settle this debate once and for all and to provide rocket scientists and brain surgeons with evidence to support their self-assuredness in the company of the other party. We tested participants across several cognitive domains, including emotional discrimination and motor control. Instead of seeking an outright winner, we assessed the cognitive characteristics of each specialty using a validated online test, the Great British Intelligence Test (GBIT) from the Cognitron platform. This test had been used to measure distinct aspects of human cognition, spanning planning and reasoning, working memory, attention, and emotion processing abilities in more than 250 000 members of the British public as part of the GBIT project in association with BBC Two’s Horizon programme. The battery of tests should not be considered an IQ test in the classic sense, but instead is intended to differentiate the aspects of cognitive ability more finely. The large existing dataset also enabled us to benchmark both professions against the general population. Read more…

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