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Marilyn vos Savant
1946) is an
playwright who rose to fame through her listing in
Guinness Book of World Records under "Highest
IQ". Since 1986 she has written Ask Marilyn, a
Sunday column in
Parade magazine in which she solves puzzles and
answers questions from readers on a variety of subjects.
Born Marilyn Mach in
St. Louis, Missouri, to Mary vos Savant and Joseph
Mach. Vos Savant believes that both men and women should
keep their premarital
surnames for life, with sons taking their father's
surname and daughters their mother's.
The word "savant",
meaning a person of learning, appears twice in her
family: her maternal grandmother's
maiden name was Savant, while her maternal
grandfather's surname was vos Savant. She is of
and is a descendant of
Washington University in St. Louis, but dropped out
to help with a family
investment business, seeking financial freedom to
pursue a career in writing.
Vos Savant's listing
in the 1986 Guinness Book of World Records brought her
widespread media attention. A profile in Parade
accompanied by a selection of questions and her answers
to them proved so popular that the magazine gave her a
weekly column, "Ask Marilyn". In it, she solves puzzles
of logic and mathematics and answers questions about
philosophy, physics, politics, education, and human
nature, as well as responding to more traditional
requests for personal advice. "Ask Marilyn" has provided
the basis for several of her books.
Vos Savant lives in
New York City with her husband
Robert Jarvik, the inventor of the
Jarvik artificial heart, whom she married in August
1987. They have two children. She is
Chief Financial Officer of Jarvik Heart, Inc., and
is involved in
cardiovascular disease research and prevention. She
has served on the
Board of Directors of the
National Council on Economic Education and on the
advisory boards of the
National Association for Gifted Children and the
National Women's History Museum, which in 1998 gave
her a "Women Making History" Award, citing "her
contribution to changing stereotypes about women".
She was named by
Toastmasters International as one of the "Five
Outstanding Speakers of 1999," and in 2003 received an
Doctor of Letters from
The College of New Jersey.
Intelligence quotient score
It is generally
acknowledged vos Savant has an extremely high
intelligence quotient (IQ) score, and she has held
memberships with the
Mensa International and the
But there is much confusion over the actual value, with
data and calculations variously yielding 167+, 186, 218,
228, and 230. Extremely high IQ measurement is an
inexact science: high IQs are very difficult to quantify
because so few people have IQs at that level, giving
rise to the problems associated with small
ceiling bumping caused by tests not designed to
measure such high IQs, and
fat tailing which gives the impression more high IQs
exist than predicted by a
normal distribution. Moreover, there are general
disagreements and controversies over the validity of
IQ scoring at any level.
Vos Savant was listed
in each edition of the Guinness Book of World Records
from 1986 to 1989 as having the "Highest IQ." Because
subsequent editions have omitted the category, her
column now reports her listing in "Guinness Hall of
Fame." Guinness cites Vos Savant's performance on two
intelligence tests: the
Stanford-Binet and the
Mega Test. She was administered the 1937
Stanford-Binet, Second Edition test ten,
ratio IQ scores by dividing the subject's mental age
as assessed by the test by chronological age, then
quotient by 100. Vos Savant says her first test was
in September 1956, and measured her ceiling mental age
at 22 years and 10 months (22-10+), yielding an IQ of
228. This is the score listed by Guinness and in her
books' "about the author" sections, and it is the one
she gives in interviews. Sometimes, a
rounded value of 230 appears due to the correct use
The 167+ IQ score is
derived from school records indicating vos Savant took
the Stanford-Binet in March 1957, at 10 years and 8
months, with a mental age 17-10+.
However, it is unclear how the recorded chronological
age was derived as March is six or seven months from her
August birthday. It is also unclear how this record
relates to the accounts reported in Guinness and by vos
Savant. It is possible she was administered the test
twice, as there were two forms of the Stanford-Binet at
the time, "Form L" and "Form M".
Although test designer
Ronald K. Hoeflin calculated her IQ at 218, this
value was informally arrived at by using 10-6+ for
chronological age, and 22-11+ for mental age, and thus
seemingly has no obvious rationale. The Second Edition
Stanford-Binet ceiling was 22 years and 10 months, not
11 months; and a 10 years and 6 months chronological age
corresponds to neither the age in accounts by vos
Savant's nor the school records cited by Baumgold.
The second test
reported by Guinness is the Mega Test, designed by
Ronald K. Hoeflin, administered to vos Savant in the
mid-1980s as an adult. The Mega Test yields
deviation IQ values obtained by multiplying the
z-score, or the rarity of the
raw test score, by a constant
standard deviation, and adding the
product to 100. Vos Savant's raw score was 46 out of
a possible 48, with 5.4 z-score, and standard deviation
of 16, arriving at a 186 IQ in the 99.999997
percentile, with a rarity of 1 in 30 million.
Assertions that vos
Savant's IQ has dropped from 228 as a child to 186 as an
adult are incorrect as the two numbers represent
different types of IQ. Because upper half of the
population, ratio IQs seem to follow a
log-normal distribution, with a standard deviation
of 0.15 for the
natural logarithm of the ratio of mental age to
chronological age, vos Savant's Stanford-Binet ratio IQ
of 228 corresponds to a deviation IQ of 188, and her
Mega Test deviation IQ of 186 corresponds to a ratio IQ
Although vos Savant's
IQ scores are among the highest recorded, the more
extravagant claims, stating that she is the smartest
person in the world and/or was a
child prodigy, should be received with skepticism.
Vos Savant herself values IQ tests as measurements of a
variety of mental abilities, and believes intelligence
itself involves so many factors that "attempts to
measure it are useless."
Fermat's last theorem
Unfavorable to vos
Savant was the outcome of the controversy following the
publication of her book The World's Most Famous Math
Problem in October 1993, a few months after the
Andrew Wiles that he had proved
Fermat's Last Theorem.
The book, which surveys the history of the theorem, drew
criticism for its discontent with Wiles's proof; vos
Savant was accused of misunderstanding
proof by contradiction, and
Especially contested was her view that Wiles's proof
should be rejected for its use of
non-Euclidean geometry. Specifically, she argued
that because "the chain of proof is based in
hyperbolic (Lobachevskian) geometry," and because
squaring the circle is considered a "famous
impossibility" despite being possible in hyperbolic
geometry, then "if we reject a hyperbolic method of
squaring the circle, we should also reject a hyperbolic
proof of Fermat's last theorem."
to differences between the two cases, distinguishing the
use of hyperbolic geometry as a tool for proving
Fermat's last theorem, from its use as a setting for
squaring the circle: squaring the circle in hyperbolic
geometry is a different problem from that of squaring it
in Euclidean geometry. She was also criticized for
rejecting hyperbolic geometry as a satisfactory basis
for Wiles's proof, with critics pointing out that
axiomatic set theory (rather than Euclidean
geometry) is now the accepted foundation of mathematical
proofs and that set theory is sufficiently robust to
encompass both Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry.
In a July 1995
addendum to the book, vos Savant retracts the argument,
writing that she had viewed the theorem as "an
intellectual challenge—'to find a proof with Fermat's
tools,'" but that she is now willing to agree that there
are no restrictions on what tools may be used.
The Monty Hall problem
Perhaps the most well
known event involving vos Savant began with a question
"Suppose you're on
a game show, and you're given the choice of three
doors. Behind one door is a car, the others, goats.
You pick a door, say #1, and the host, who knows
what's behind the doors, opens another door, say #3,
which has a goat. He says to you: 'Do you want to
pick door #2?' Is it to your advantage to switch
your choice of doors?" —Craig F. Whitaker,
This question, named
Monty Hall problem" because of its similarity to
scenarios on game show
Let's Make a Deal, existed long before being posed
to vos Savant, but was brought to nationwide attention
by her column. Vos Savant answered arguing that the
selection should be switched to door #2 because it has a
2/3 chance of success, while door #1 has just 1/3. This
response provoked letters of thousands of readers,
nearly all arguing doors #1 and #2 each have an equal
chance of success. A follow-up column reaffirming her
position served only to intensify the debate and soon
became a feature article on the front page of
The New York Times. Among the ranks of dissenting
arguments were hundreds of academics and mathematicians
excoriating her for propagating
Under the most common
interpretation of the problem where the host opens a
losing door and offers a switch, vos Savant's answer is
correct because her interpretation assumes the host will
always avoid the door with the prize. However, having
the host opening a door at random, or offering a switch
only if the initial choice is correct, is a completely
different problem, and is not the question for which she
provided a solution. Marilyn addressed these issues by
writing the following in Parade Magazine, "...the
original answer defines certain conditions, the most
significant of which is that the host always opens a
losing door on purpose. Anything else is a different
 In Vos Savant's second followup, she went
further into an explanation of her assumptions and
reasoning, and called on school teachers to present the
problem to each of their classrooms. In her final column
on the problem, she announced the results of the more
than a thousand school experiments. Nearly 100% of the
results concluded that it pays to switch. Of the readers
who wrote computer simulations of the problem, about 97%
reached the same conclusion. A majority of respondents
now agree with her original solution, with half of the
published letters declaring the letter writers had
changed their minds.
"Two boys" problem
Like the Monty Hall
"two boys" or "second-sibling" problem predates Ask
Marilyn, but generated controversy in the column,
first appearing there in 1991-92 in the context of baby
A shopkeeper says
she has two new baby beagles to show you, but she
doesn't know whether they're male, female, or a
pair. You tell her that you want only a male, and
she telephones the fellow who's giving them a bath.
"Is at least one a male?" she asks him. "Yes!" she
informs you with a smile. What is the probability
that the other one is a male?
—Stephen I. Geller,
When vos Savant
replied "One out of three" readers
Boy or Girl paradox for solution details. wrote to argue that the odds
were fifty-fifty. In a follow-up, she defended her
answer, observing that "If we could shake a pair of
puppies out of a cup the way we do dice, there are four
ways they could land", in three of which at least one is
male, but in only one of which both are male. See
The problem re-emerged
in 1996-97 with two cases juxtaposed:
Say that a woman
and a man (who are unrelated) each has two children.
We know that at least one of the woman's children is
a boy and that the man's oldest child is a boy. Can
you explain why the chances that the woman has two
boys do not equal the chances that the man has two
boys? My algebra teacher insists that the
probability is greater that the man has two boys,
but I think the chances may be the same. What do you
Vos Savant agreed with
the algebra teacher, writing that the chances are only 1
out of 3 that the woman has two boys, but 1 out of 2
that the man has two boys. Readers argued for 1 out of 2
in both cases, prompting multiple follow-ups. Finally
vos Savant started a survey, calling on women readers
with exactly two children and at least one boy to tell
her the sex of both children. With almost eighteen
thousand responses, the results showed 35.9% (a little
over 1 in 3) with two boys.
- 1985 - Omni I.Q. Quiz Contest
- 1990 - Brain Building: Exercising Yourself
Smarter (co-written with Leonore Fleischer)
- 1992 - Ask Marilyn: Answers to America's Most
Frequently Asked Questions
- 1993 - The World's Most Famous Math Problem:
The Proof of Fermat's Last Theorem and Other
- 1994 - More Marilyn: Some Like It Bright!
- 1994 - "I've Forgotten Everything I Learned
in School!": A Refresher Course to Help You Reclaim
- 1996 - Of Course I'm for Monogamy: I'm Also
for Everlasting Peace and an End to Taxes
- 1996 - The Power of Logical Thinking: Easy
Lessons in the Art of Reasoning…and Hard Facts about
Its Absence in Our Lives
- 2000 - The Art of Spelling: The Madness and
- 2002 - Growing Up: A Classic American
In addition to her
published works, Marilyn has written a collection of
humorous short stories called Short Shorts, a stage play
called It Was Poppa's Will, and two novels: a satire of
a dozen classical civilizations in history called The
Re-Creation, and a futuristic political fantasy, as yet
^ Marilyn vos Savant (25 November 2007). "Ask
c Julie Baumgold (6
February 1989). "In the Kingdom of the Brain",
^ Michael Vitez (12 October 1988). "Two of a
Kind", The Chicago Tribune.
^ National Women's History Museum (28
September 1998). "First
Annual "Women Making History" Awards".
Press release. Retrieved on 2008-02-25.
^ Thompson, D. (5 July 1986). "Marilyn's
Most Vital Statistic", The Courier-Mail.
Retrieved on 2008-02-25.
Terman, Lewis M.; Merrill, Maud A. (1937).
Measuring Intelligence. Boston; New York:
Houghton Mifflin Co.
^ Hoeflin, Ronald K. (1989). "The
Sixth Norming of the Mega Test". Darryl
Miyaguchi. Retrieved on
^ Scoville, John (28 June 1999). "Statistical
Distribution of Childhood IQ Scores".
University of Kentucky. Archived from
the original on
^ Schmich, Mary T (29 September 1985). "Meet
the World's Smartest Person", Chicago Tribune.
Retrieved on 2008-02-25.
^ Marilyn vos Savant (17 July 2005). "Ask
Marilyn: Are Men Smarter Than Women?",
Retrieved on 2008-02-25.
^ Fermat's Last Theorem and Wiles's proof
were also discussed in vos Savant's Parade
column of November 21, 1993, which introduced
Boston, Nigel; Granville, Andrew (May 1995). "Review
of The World's Most Famous Math Problem"
(.PDF). American Mathematical Monthly 102 (5):
Retrieved on 2008-02-25.
^ Tierney, John (21 July 1991). "Behind
Monty Hall's Doors: Puzzle, Debate and Answer?",
The New York Times.
Retrieved on 2008-08-07.
^ "Game Show Problem", marilynvossavant.com.
Retrieved on 2008-06-02.
^ Marilyn vos Savant (1992). "Ask Marilyn",
Retrieved on 2008-02-25.
^ The problem appeared in Ask Marilyn on
October 13, 1991 with a follow-up on January 5,
1992 (initially involving two baby beagles
instead of two children), and then on May 26,
1996 with follow-ups on December 1, 1996, March
30, 1997, July 27, 1997, and October 19, 1997.
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