Marilyn von Sant and the The Monty Hall Problem: Why probability theory is so darn complicated

When Marilyn vos Savant, author of the “Ask Marilyn” column in Parade Magazine, politely responded to a reader’s inquiry on the Monty Hall Problem, a then-relatively-unknown probability puzzle, she never could’ve imagined what would unfold: though her answer was correct, she received over 10,000 letters, many from noted scholars and Ph.Ds, informing her that she was a hare-brained idiot.

What ensued for vos Savant was a nightmarish journey, rife with name-calling, gender-based assumptions, and academic persecution.

Here’s the problem: Imagine that you’re on a television game show and the host presents you with three closed doors. Behind one of them, sits a sparkling, brand-new Lincoln Continental; behind the other two, are smelly old goats. The host implores you to pick a door, and you select door #1. Then, the host, who is well-aware of what’s going on behind the scenes, opens door #3, revealing one of the goats.

“Now,” he says, turning toward you, “do you want to keep door #1, or do you want to switch to door #2?”

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Statistically, which choice gets you the car: keeping your original door, or switching? If you, like most people, posit that your odds are 50-50, you’re wrong — unless, of course, you like goats as much as you like new cars, in which case you’ll win 100% of the time.

Loosely based on the famous television game show Let’s Make a Deal, the scenario presented above, better known as the “Monty Hall Problem,” is a rather famous probability question. Despite its deceptive simplicity, some of the world’s brightest minds — MIT professors, renowned mathematicians, and MacArthur “Genius” Fellows — have had trouble grasping its answer. For decades, it has sparked intense debates in classrooms and lecture halls.

The outcry to von Savant’s response was so tremendous that vos Savant was forced to devote three subsequent columns to explaining why her logic was correct. Even in the wake of her well-stated, clear responses, she continued to be berated. “I still think you’re wrong,” wrote one man, nearly a year later. “There is such a thing as female logic.”

Read full original article: The Time Everyone “Corrected” the World’s Smartest Woman

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