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kottke.org posts about Cecil Adams

The Monty Hall Problem, explained

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 20, 2016

The Monty Hall Problem is one of those things that demonstrates just how powerful a pull common sense has on the human reasoning process. The problem itself is easily stated: there are three doors and behind one of them there is a prize and behind the other two, nothing. You choose a door in hopes of finding the prize and then one of the other two doors is opened to reveal nothing. You are offered the opportunity to switch your guess to the other door. Do you take it?

Common sense tells you that switching wouldn’t make any difference. There are two remaining doors, the prize is randomly behind one of them, why would switching yield any benefit? But as the video explains and this simulation shows, counterintuition prevails: you should switch every time.

America was introduced to the difficulty of the problem by Marilyn vos Savant in her column for Parade magazine in 1990.1 In a follow-up explanation of the question, vos Savant offered a quite simple “proof” of the always switch method (from Wikipedia). Let’s assume you pick door #1, here are the possible outcomes:

Door 1 Door 2 Door 3 Result if you stay Result if you switch
Car Goat Goat Wins car Wins goat
Goat Car Goat Wins goat Wins car
Goat Goat Car Wins goat Wins car

As you can see, staying yields success 33% of the time while if you switch, you win 2 times out of three (67%), a result verified by a properly written simulator. In his Straight Dope column, Cecil Adams explained it like so (after he had gotten it wrong in the first place):

A friend of mine did suggest another way of thinking about the problem that may help clarify things. Suppose we have the three doors again, one concealing the prize. You pick door #1. Now you’re offered this choice: open door #1, or open door #2 and door #3. In the latter case you keep the prize if it’s behind either door. You’d rather have a two-in-three shot at the prize than one-in-three, wouldn’t you? If you think about it, the original problem offers you basically the same choice. Monty is saying in effect: you can keep your one door or you can have the other two doors, one of which (a non-prize door) I’ll open for you.

See also the case of the plane and the conveyor belt (sorry not sorry, I couldn’t resist).

  1. I was a religious reader of Parade and remember this column and the resulting furor very clearly. Re: the furor, it’s so interesting to note in hindsight (being 16 and clueless at the time) how much of the response was men who clearly were trying to put the smackdown on a prominent, intelligent woman and they just got totally owned.

And if you don’t know, now you know

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 30, 2013

Dan Lewis is the director of new media communications at Sesame Street, which I’m sure is hard work but sounds like the best job in the world.

For years, he’s also run a daily email newsletter called “Now I Know,” featuring little science and history vignettes. For example, did you know… Abraham Lincoln signed the legislation creating the US Secret Service the day he was fatally shot… in order to investigate counterfeit money schemes. (Which is why the Secret Service was part of the Treasury department before being absorbed into Homeland Security.)

Now Dan has put those stories in a book, also called Now I Know, available for preorder for October 18. It’s like a newer, less snarky iteration of Cecil Adams’ The Straight Dope. Or, even better, Cliff Clavin’s CliffsNotes.

PS: Tell me on Twitter: did Notorious B.I.G. really coin (and not just popularize) “and if you don’t know, now you know” with “Juicy”? I swear, as a younger teenager pretty much immersed in hip-hop, I remember that that specific phrase being in the air or even in a song or by a comic or DJ well before 1994. But it’s in that weird window of 1990s history where Google gets all tangled and useless. You know, this is the sort of question I should probably be asking Dan Lewis.