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Tuesday 16 Jul 2024

The Monty Hall Problem
David Simmonds

I must confess I have never taken any instruction in the subject of mathematical probabilities, as the rest of this piece will no doubt demonstrate. When I started reading Rationality: what it is, why it seems scarce, why it matters, by the Montreal-born and Harvard celebrity intellectual, Steven Pinker, I knew the jig was up. When I saw the Monty Hall problem laid out, right on page 19, I knew I had to face up to my failure to understand it, if I was going to derive any benefit from the rest of the book.

Rational or emotional solutions.

The Monty Hall Problem is taken from the playbook of the once popular television game show Let’s Make a Deal. Monty Hall, born Monte Halparin, in Winnipeg, was the co-creator and host of the game show. Everybody called him Monty.

The show has fascinated a generation of mathematics nerds and casual grazers like me. Nowadays, you can go on YouTube and find all kinds of solutions to the problem, explained with anything from a pen and drawing paper to sophisticated computer simulations. A solution is not as nearby as you might think.

The Monty Hall Problem shows how strongly an intuitive answer can take hold be and how hard it can be to see the mathematically correct answer. Let’s Make a Deal featured a three-door game. Behind one of the three doors was a shiny new car; behind each of the other two doors was a goat.

Contestants had to make a preliminary choice as to which door they wanted, the car being the prize everyone wanted. Contestants didn’t know which of the three doors contained the goats or a car. Monty, who knew, would open one of the two doors not selected by the contestant, provided it harboured a goat, leaving the car prize to be discovered behind one of the two unopened doors.

Monty would have had one or two doors to choose from, depending on whether the contestant had unknowingly selected a goat or the car as their preliminary choice. The contestant would then be put to a choice before a second and final door was opened. Did they wish to stick with their original choice of door or did they wish to change their door to the one they had not chosen initially and that had not been chosen by Monty.

Locating the goats.

Contestants were now armed with information regarding the precise location of one of the two goats. Should that make any difference? The intuitive answer is that it shouldn’t.

Whichever door is selected, it remains the case that behind one door is a car and behind the other a goat. It’s a 50-50 chance which one you pick. Why change for the sake of change?

It’s not simple. In fact, you are better off to switch doors. By sticking with your original door choice, you would be wasting the knowledge that was given to you by the revelation of the goat door.

You would be settling for a one in three chance you picked the door behind which hide the car. Switching doors ups the likelihood of success to two in three. It almost defies comprehension.

Here’s how it goes. Let’s say you had door number one selected as the preliminary choice for the location of the car. If door number three was opened by Monty, you would move your guess as to the location of the car to door number two.

You would lose if the car were in fact located behind door number one. You would win if it were located behind door number two. You would also win if the car were located behind door number three, because Monty would have had to reveal the goat in gate number two.

Gate number one was the one you were sitting on from your preliminary choice. Gate number three contained the car. In two out of three scenarios, you come out the winner by switching. 

Note how this manoeuvre doesn’t guarantee the result of any game, in particular; just as flipping a coin ten times and coming up heads ten times in a row doesn’t have any value in predicting what the outcome of the next flip will be. What it does tell you is that over, say, a hundred games you would show roughly two-thirds of your games justifying your move to the new door. 

This is useful information, especially if you don’t want to get into the goat herding business. A contestant on Let’s Make a Deal only gets to play the game once. Thus, it presents a tossup, so let’s cut them a little slack.

Even after demonstrating to myself that the switch option is the better one, there are moments when I revert to the tossup scenario and lose track of the switch option’s logic. Such is the power of the mind to go for the intuitive. Emotion trumps the rational in many human decisions.

What’s the probability?

Thank you, Monty Hall, of Winnipeg, for leaving such a delightfully challenging legacy. You will be pleased to know that I have resolved to take the advice of the good doctor Pinker and try to make more rational decisions in my own life. What’s the probability of that happening? I hope the answer is not counter-intuitive.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Pete Hamill and Mike Barnacle; the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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