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IQs And Appeals to Authority

by Hans Bluedorn

Some of you may have seen the column by Marilyn vos Savant from the February 24 issue of Parade Magazine. Marilyn vos Savant has the highest I.Q. of any person in the world – so says "The Guiness Book of World Records."

When asked the question,

"My husband and I are thinking of home-schooling. Do you recommend it?"

she answered,

". . . I would not recommend it broadly unless most schools were inadequate and most parents could teach everything from literature to physics. And I don't believe that either is true.

"If home-schooling were institutionalized, half of the youthful potential of Americans would go unfulfilled. Say that a bright young parent sacrifices a rewarding career to stay home and teach the children. When those children grow up, would half of them (one parent from each married couple) also sacrifice their potential to stay home and teach their own children?"

Marilyn vos Savant is a very intelligent lady. Should we trust her as an authority when she says she doesn't recommend home schooling?

When we aren't knowledgeable on a certain subject, the wise thing is to ask an authority – somebody who is knowledgeable on the subject.


You: "My car won't run. What's wrong with it?"

Mechanic: "Hmmmm . . . It looks like you have a broken timing chain, warped camshaft and the U-Joints are shot. That will have to be fixed before it will run."

You do what the mechanic says because he knows more about cars than you do. The mechanic is the authority, and you trust him. We all do this every day without thinking about it. When we want to know how high Mount McKinley is, we don't take a yardstick and climb up 20,320 feet to find out. We look it up in a book. We trust that book because the authors have been to Mount McKinley – or know someone who has – and we haven't. They are authorities on the subject.

We appeal to someone with special knowledge, an authority, when we claim something is true because an authority said it was true. Appealing to the advice of an authority can be valuable when we do it in the right way.

However, if the person we are appealing to is not actually an authority in the area we are discussing, our appeal is faulty.

Another example:

"My car mechanic says the best way to fix computer problems is to just give the computer a good, sharp, kick. He says it should always work."

Your car mechanic may be knowledgeable when working with cars, but he may not have any special knowledge about computers. We should not appeal to him as an authority on computers unless he was knowledgeable.

Definition: The fallacy of faulty appeal to authority is faulty because it is an appeal to someone who has no special knowledge in the area being discussed, and therefore is not qualified to give a reasonable opinion.

Back to Marilyn vos Savant: On what subject or subjects is she an authority? She is an authority on those things that a high I.Q. will allow you to do well – playing chess, building rockets, coming up with theories on quantum physics, and programing a VCR.

Does this make her an authority on educating children, or on whether home schooling sacrifices the potential benefit to society of the home-schooling parent? No.

So, should we ask her questions on these issues? Yes, if we're interested to learn what her experience and her current point of view are. No, if we are looking for reliable advice.

You see, the human tendency is to think that if someone is an authority on one thing, he or she is also an authority on many other things. That's why we see famous actors promoting a non-acting-related product: People generally respect their opinion. "If Paul Newman thinks organic foods are more nutritious than chemically-saturated foods, shouldn't you, too?"

A faulty appeal to authority may be used to overawe someone. Imagine the following discussion between a potential home-schooling mom and a skeptical person:

Potential Home-schooling Mom: "We're thinking of home schooling our little Johnny. I will quit my job so we can give him a good education."

Skeptical Person: "You're thinking of that, are you? I was just reading a magazine article in which someone asked the woman who has the world's highest I.Q. what she thought of home schooling. She said she didn't think home schooling was a good idea; that it ruined the potential of a perfectly good worker."

Potential Home-schooling Mom: "That sounds bad . . . especially if that woman is the smartest person in the world. She must know what she's talking about. Maybe we need to reconsider."

Here, the Skeptical Person, intentionally or not, is using a faulty appeal to authority to undermine the mom's convictions about home schooling.

The mom is allowing herself to be overawed by the intelligence of somebody who supposedly has a high I.Q., whatever that means. (And there is little agreement on that issue!)

If this mom thought about it a little more, she might realize that the smartest person in the world may not be knowledgeable on every subject.

There is another way you can commit the fallacy of a faulty appeal to authority.

Definition: When the topic under discussion is a topic where there is a lot of controversy among equally respected authorities, then simply appealing to the opinion of a particular authority may be a faulty appeal to authority.

If many accepted authorities disagree on a particular subject, we can't say one particular authority is the correct one unless we have researched the subject ourselves, since there are other equally-respected authorities who disagree.

Man On The Street: "I've been home schooled all of my life, and I think it has helped me a lot."

Man On The Sidewalk: "Not according to the National Education Association. They just published a report called: "NEA 2000-2001 Resolutions B-68. Home Schooling." It says: "The National Education Association believes that home schooling programs cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience." You must believe the National Education Association. They are the respected authorities on the subject of child education."

Man With Head Out Window: "That's funny. I just heard the president of a national home-schooling association say home-schooling produces people who are intelligent, socially adaptable, and bring great benefits to society. He also says that public-school students often turn into social troublemakers. You must believe the president of this national home-schooling association. He is a highly-respected authority on child education."

Home schooling is a controversial topic among educators of all types. None of these people can say home schooling is good or bad simply because a particular authority on education has said so. They need to support their opinion with other information, such as statistical evidence.

When respected authorities disagree, you must weigh the arguments and find the facts on your own. Examine all sides of the issue and decide for yourself.

How do we deal with what we think is a faulty appeal to authority? We need to question the authority of that person. What is he an authority on? Is that area of expertise related to what he is talking about now? Do other authorities disagree?

Hans Bluedorn




Date: Sat, 15 Dec 2001 04:40:52 EST


I found an example of circular reasoning from an individual from whom I would least expect it. It is a Christian apologist who will remain unnamed so as not to discredit him, because he is one of the best thinkers I have ever encountered and is more logical than I could ever hope to be. I wouldn't want to let one little slip discredit him in anyone's eyes. He was giving reasons to reject the Apocrypha as part of the canon of Scripture. His third reason was as follows: "Some books promote unbiblical concepts, e.g., prayer for the dead (2 Macc. 12:45-46)." The question here pertains to the contents of the canon, and whether or not the Apocrypha is to be considered part of the contents or not. But he assumes already what the canon is to judge the canonicity of the Apocrypha. He is assuming that which he is trying to prove; i.e., that the canon does not include the Apocrypha. If he did not start with this conclusion, he would have no basis to say that the Apocrypha cannot be included because it promotes "unbiblical concepts." If indeed the Apocrypha should be part of the canon (which is the question at hand), then it would be part of the Bible, and thus its teachings could not be considered unbiblical. De facto its teachings would be biblical, and thus could not contradict the Bible, because it would be contradicting itself (this argument of mine presupposes the unity of Scripture). He had already assumed that the Apocrypha is not part of the canon, and then goes on to argue based on this a priori commitment that its teachings are unbiblical. While he made it seem that he moved from a question (whether or not the Apocrypha is part of the canon) to a conclusion, he actually moved from a conclusion to a conclusion, using circular reasoning to "prove" his point. The rabbit was always in the hat just waiting to be pulled out!

– Jason Dulle

Stockton, CA



In regard to the letter from Jason Dulle: He may have misunderstood the Bible scholar he mentions. The word "apocryphal" means "of doubtful authenticity." The Greek it comes from is "apo"– meaning "off," "away from," "detached," "separate," and other words that indicate separation– and "cryphal," which seems to be related to "crypt," and words that indicate secrecy or a hidden quality.

Writings were included or not included in the Bible based on several criteria, including historical accuracy and resonance with the books already known to be inspired, such as the books of Moses. Thus, presenting a different teaching than any of the known-to-be-inspired books was a warning not to include the book. Most of the Apocrypha not only present unscriptural views, but are not historically accurate, and have the quality of stories rather than Scripture.

When the Apocrypha were first bound in with the accepted-to-be-inspired books, it was as a matter of convenience for people who wanted to read the stories. It was expected that people would mentally make a difference in how they read them, and that they would realize these books were put between the Old and New Testaments because they were written during the time between the Testaments. It was not expected that these writings would then become "biblical" or sources of doctrine.

Today, many people have "Bibles" that contain almost as much material by other authors than God as they contain Scripture! It is almost impossible to maintain one's faith in the face of that, because how do you believe one thing on the page and take the other with a grain of salt? Similarly, the Apocrypha ended up becoming a source of doctrine to some because they were bound in with true Scripture and read together.

However, none of this changes the fact that these books were originally excluded from the Bible BECAUSE they were not biblical– that is, not in agreement with the known-to-be-inspired books – and even if they were bound in with the Bible, they would not then BECOME biblical, or change the standards of what is and is not "biblical."

This may have been what Jason's Bible scholar was referring to – the original decision-making process – and not the obviously circular reasoning Jason presented in his letter.

Love, in Jesus,


Copyright April 12, 2002, all rights reserved. 6649 views

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