Logic can be a humbling experience. We’d like to tell you the story of how expensive one logical mistake was for us.
This story begins in 1998 when we heard on a talk show that computers would crash on New Year’s Day, 2000 – everything that uses a computer would stop working. We were told to trade our electric appliances for propane appliances and to stockpile gasoline and toothpaste.
Up to this point, we prided ourselves for being logical. Our parents taught us to notice the different ways people reason – the way an Indian might learn to sense every sound in the forest. If you visited our family, you would notice how much we talk about logic. This is the story of how logic humbled us.
Our family spent time and money preparing for Y2K and the end of the world-as-we-know-it. But as we work, a small doubt tugs at our mind. Everyone we respect warns us to prepare for the worst, but could there be an error in our reasoning? As the 2000 date draws closer . . . and arrives . . . and we still have electricity, we think to ourselves, “I hope we never learn this lesson again.”
We’d fallen for a logical error called faulty appeal to authority.
A faulty appeal to authority is when someone supports his viewpoint with the authority of someone who has no special knowledge of that subject. The following is an example of a correct appeal to authority.
You My car won’t start.
Car Mechanic You pumped diesel fuel in your gasoline engine. We’ll have to clean out the cylinders before it’ll start.
You trust your car mechanic because he’s shown that he knows how to fix cars. However, the following is a faulty appeal to authority.
You My computer won’t start.
Car Mechanic Pour a quart of motor oil in the top. That works for me.
You shouldn’t trust your car mechanic about computers because he’s never shown that he knows how to fix them.
Before Y2K, many people wrote books on why it would change history. But many of these authors never showed how they had any special knowledge of computers. They were experts in other fields, like survival preparedness or how to invest in gold and silver collectors’ coins, not computers. My family trusted them and we were misled.
But there is a second way to commit a faulty appeal to authority. If a person supports his viewpoint with the authority of only one expert in a field when there is much disagreement among experts on that issue, this is also a faulty appeal to authority.
Your Pediatrician Remember to give your child a balanced diet and make sure he gets plenty of sleep.
It is quite reasonable to trust your pediatrician’s advice on this. Your pediatrician has shown he understands the health and well-being of children, and pediatricians generally agree on this issue. However, should you trust the following advice?
Your Pediatrician Never spank your child. It might hurt his emotional development.
There is much disagreement on this issue among qualified experts. In this case, it isn’t wise to rely on the advice of only one expert. You need to study the issue yourself.
Before Y2K, some computer experts said computers would crash. But many disagreed and said the Y2K problem would be fixed on time. Instead of educating ourselves about both sides of this controversy, we only listened to the side we felt comfortable trusting. This is how we committed the second type of faulty appeal to authority.
Do you see why Y2K had a lot to do with logic?
We want to leave you with this lesson. We’ve experienced first-hand how much trouble a fallacy can cause. But we learned something. Before Y2K, we used our mind to criticize people and find their lack of logic, but Y2K taught us our own lack of logic. Logic can be a humbling experience.
First appeared in Homeschooling Today magazine, January-February 2005.
Copyright January 01, 2005, all rights reserved. 10323 views