Einstein wasn’t dyslexic – the cult of ‘Genius by Association’

A.A. Gill has written a great article in the Sunday Times magazine about his hidden dyslexia and the effect it has had upon his life. It’s undoubtedly a very brave act for someone who earns their crust solely (I believe) from writing and he makes many thought provoking points about the the UK Dept of Education’s attitude to dealing with this and other learning disabilities, regardless of their official position.

It’s a brave article but contains 2 points that really irked me. The first is the assertion that dyslexia doesn’t afflict those speaking the Chinese language. It does and a bit of research would have yielded this Scientific American article explaining the differences between Chinese and latin alphabet dyslexia which are possibly 2 different learning disabilities with a similar outcome.

The second is the fashionable, albeit qualified claim, that Einstein may have been dyslexic. This is highly unlikely and the “facts” often trotted out to support it aren’t true. Einstein wasn’t a dunce at school. He was never a dunce by any stretch of the imagination. Multiple biographers have noted that his failure to pass his college exams were more likely to do with an unwillingness to submit to the will of his domineering father than a learning disability. Stubbornness being a hallmark of his life according to all of the many biographies and his own letters. An industry of Learning Disability coaching has sprung up on the back of exaggerated and incorrect claims that Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci were almost certainly dyslexic. Indeed the previous link is amusing in that their basing the efficacy of their product on the contrary. Marlin Thomas of Iona college, New Rochelle, NY has an excellent presentation on the topic available here. It’s worth reading in that it identifies the difficulties with any of these retrospective diagnoses while specifically dealing with the infamous “Einstein was dyslexic” diagnosis that litters the intertubes like so much other garbage. Just google it and you’ll find the claim used in many contexts; some innocent, some objectively commercial.

Now, I’m often irked. There’s no doubt about it. I exist in a state of irkdom 🙂 However, I don’t think it’s reasonable for dyslexics or any other group to claim association with any great intellectual figure based on flimsy or misleading interpretations of historical information or outright lies.  It’s very fashionable to do so right now. For example, is Newton’s science defined by the possibility that he was gay? Given the documentary evidence of his obsessive and intense nature, social awkwardness, perhaps he was a high functioning autistic, or both. If proven, it would certainly be annoying for bible-thumping homophobes (always a good outcome) but is it worth bending facts to make the connection? Based on our current historical evidence it’s exciting conjecture but just that.

In Einstein’s case, the dyslexia claim gives another human element to the story of one of science’s deepest thinkers who made a lateral leap so bold and ingenious that it forced a reexamination of our understanding of the organisation of the universe . Time’s Person of the 20th Century has come to embody our understanding of genius. Who wouldn’t want this heritage? We all want to believe we have that spark within us and perhaps we do. Yet by focusing on misleading claims of dyslexia, we miss the struggles of the man’s life and his foibles that made him very human indeed.

I must confess to being a stutterer. It was severe when I was younger. I’m still nervous about it and anxious about public speaking as a result. The thing I fear the most during a presentation is my mind going into some kind of stutter loop where I focus on a sentence that I just can’t get out. This rarely happens as I’ve gotten older. I notice that Newton is on the list of stutterers too. Looking at the list there’s no obvious correlation between stuttering and an interest in physics as, if there was, the list would have more physicists & engineers.  Either way I’m glad the cure of “hitting a stutterer in the face when the weather is cloudy” has gone out of fashion. It was popular up until the late 80s in my school.

I’m not dismissing the need for real neurological research to understand these phenomena and how they affect our perspectives on the world. Cargo-cult science of genius by association doesn’t further this research or our understanding one bit.