The Colorado shooting suspect: how “smart?”

Apologies in advance to any readers who might be put off by my writing about the science aspects of the Colorado movie theater tragedy. I was a faculty member at the University of Colorado in Denver from 1992 to 2001 and was in the area during the Columbine High School shooting rampage. I also still have some friends out there and feel a personal connection to the place and people who helped launch my independent research career. Nevertheless, I claim no special knowledge of the current inner workings of the University – all of my sources for this and other posts come from publicly-available information sources.

I write this disclaimer because Marisol Bello (@Marisol_Bello) and Dan Vergano (@dvergano) have an intriguing article today at USA Today on the relative level of specialized intelligence of the Colorado shooting suspect. The suspect was one of six students on a NIH neuroscience training grant – called a T32 Ruth L. Kirschstein Institutional National Research Service Award, or just T32 or NRSA. The specific grant that supported the suspect for his first year of graduate school at University of Colorado Denver is described here at the publicly-accessible NIH RePORTER database.

An “institutional” training grant?
These are training grants awarded to institutions, not specific students, that are noteworthy for having an excellent and comprehensive training environment for predoctoral students. The institutions awarded these grants then have the discretion to appoint the candidates for grant support.

This NIH notice (NOT-OD-12-033) describes the support given to each student appointed to the training grant: a stipend of $22,032 per year (to which Colorado adds to bump it up to $26,000), “training related expenses” of $4,200/year to cover things like health insurance, another $4,200/year to host laboratories to offset the costs of laboratory supplies, and 60% of the trainee’s tuition and fees up to $16,000/year (to which most schools add to completely cover tuition.)

Being appointed to one of these institutional training grants is generally considered to be less prestigious than winning an individual NRSA. These individual grants are awards given to the student’s mentoring professor based on the individual research project and training environment of the individual host laboratory, in addition to institutional considerations.

Still, institutions are judged on the quality of the students they appoint to institutional NRSAs. So, the Colorado shooting suspect had to meet some minimum undergraduate GPA and standardized GRE test scores.

Not “supersmart”
Getting back to the USA Today article, Bello and Vergano interviewed scientists who know of the suspect from his previous work in an eight-week summer science camp at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in La Jolla, CA. They are not impressed:

But neuroscientist David Eagleman says Holmes’ credentials were no better than those of an average student. The mass killing suspect is no elite neuroscientist, says Eagleman, of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

“He was just a second-year grad student,” he says. “He didn’t know anything.”

I’m sure that quote won’t endear second-year graduate students, but it’s noteworthy that observers of this case have been inundated with just how bright this allegedly disturbed individual might be. Eagleman goes so far as to recall thinking the suspect was “a dolt” while another scientist was quoted by the Los Angeles Times as calling the suspect “a “mediocre” student who was stubborn and did not listen to direction.”

Does it matter whether the suspect was smart, super-smart, average? Well, his relative intelligence may play a role in the viability of an insanity defense being mounted by his court-appointed attorneys (who I do not envy in the least). My personal view is that the reported four months of preparation for the attack neutralizes such a legal claim.

But a Twitter discussion this morning with Unstable Isotope (@UnstableIsotope) led us to consider why those interviewed by Bello and Vergano were so extreme in their comments discrediting the suspect’s neuroscience intelligence or aptitude. UI asked me how highly ranked CU-Denver’s neuroscience program was. The best data I could find is this 2010 National Research Council ranking in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

These rankings provide ranges rather than a single number. But out of 93 programs evaluated, the Colorado program is in the top-third – most definitely the top half – of such doctoral programs in the US.

So, how smart was the suspect?

Sadly, smart enough.



Bello M and Vergano D. Neuroscientists debunk idea Colorado suspect was supersmart. USA TODAY, 25 July 2012.

University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus Newsroom. GRADUATE SCHOOL NEUROSCIENCE PROGRAM OVERVIEW. Answers to questions regarding James Holmes. 21 July 2012 (last accessed 25 July 2012).

Author: David Kroll

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  1. This whole angle is journalism at its worst. If *anything* they should be asking if career disappointment played a role, not asking how smart the guy was. Ridiculous. (and the Salk folks really come off like jerks which is saying something, under the circumstances)

  2. Personally I don’t think the scientists came off very well in the article. It reads like they are jealous of the attention Holmes’s intelligence is getting and crying “I’m much smarter than him!” Really completely tone-deaf. Holmes was smart enough to get in the program. The fact that he washed out may have more to do with his increasing insanity rather than his intelligence.

    Also somewhat amused by the implication that Holmes was no genius because he got some Bs in high school.

  3. I agree with DrugMonkey. This article reminded me of how lucky I am to work at a small company with no arrogant PhD’s who think they’re so much smarter than everyone else!

  4. In my experience, people who have spent many years in academia (as all scientists have, whether they remain there or not) tend to lose perspective on how educated or “smart” people are in general. When nearly everyone around you has or will have a PhD, you forget that attaining that level of education is a rarity among the general public.

    According to Wikipedia (see link below), 30% of American adults have a bachelor’s degree, and only 3% have a PhD or professional degree. I work at at small biotech, and half of the people there have an advanced degree (PhD/MD/MBA). For many years I have been surrounded every day by highly educated people. Would they all be considered “smart” by the general public, based on their level of education? Absolutely. Would I consider them all to be equally smart? No. The scientific working environment sets the bar pretty high and we all learn along the way that a fancy diploma doesn’t necessarily make you smart.

    Is James Holmes smart? Probably, and as you said, smart enough. I’m guessing the public comments that “he didn’t know anything” are fueled a little by snobbery and a lot by wanting to separate the scientific community from his actions. He certainly can’t be one of Us.