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Psychologists Don't Know Math 566

stupefaction writes "The New York Times reports that an economist has exposed a mathematical fallacy at the heart of the experimental backing for the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance. The mistake is the same one that mathematicians both amateur and professional have made over the Monty Hall problem. From the article: "Like Monty Hall's choice of which door to open to reveal a goat, the monkey's choice of red over blue discloses information that changes the odds." The reporter John Tierney invites readers to comment on the goats-and-car paradox as well as on three other probabilistic brain-teasers."
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Psychologists Don't Know Math

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  • Nice try! (Score:5, Funny)

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <`dadinportland' `at' `'> on Thursday April 10, 2008 @05:36PM (#23029966) Homepage Journal
    Like I'm going to click on a link with the word 'goat' in it.
  • by hkgroove ( 791170 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @05:37PM (#23029978) Homepage
    Don't tell the Scientologists... You'll only arm them!
  • Hmmm.... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Otter ( 3800 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @05:38PM (#23029998) Journal
    1) " Psychologists Don't Know Math" is a rather inflammatory, inaccurate, braindead headline, even by local standards.

    2) The issue seems easy enough to settle empirically, given a few monkeys and a bag of M&Ms, besides the fact that it seems to have been empirically settled decades ago anyway.

    3) This is, though, a good opportunity to ridicule "21" for completely botching the Monty Hall problem, along with pretty much everything else relating to math, gambling and Boston-area geography.

    • Re:Hmmm.... (Score:5, Funny)

      by Gat0r30y ( 957941 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @06:29PM (#23030460) Homepage Journal

      2) The issue seems easy enough to settle empirically, given a few monkeys and a bag of M&Ms, besides the fact that it seems to have been empirically settled decades ago anyway.
      One would think, but as it turns out, there are too many complexities. You see, you have to consider the socio-economic background of the monkeys, their upbringing, and their inherent biases to figure out if they like green, blue or red M&M's best. You see, the monkeys have an inherent bias toward green, but only if they have been captured from the wild (where presumably green would be comforting, the color of trees and whatnot). And of course there is the political bias associated with red and blue, so it depends on whether the monkey's political biases. These are especially hard to sort out as monkeys tend to just throw feces at the other side, at every opportunity, so you can easily separate the two groups, but rarely can you tell which is which. Its difficult to determine if they like to eat blue M&M's because they themselves are blue (or feel blue, as depressed monkeys have a significant bias toward the blue M&M's) or because they are red as it were, and feel like eating the blue ones to get back at the other side.
    • Inaccurate? (Score:5, Funny)

      by jpfed ( 1095443 ) <jerry,federspiel&gmail,com> on Thursday April 10, 2008 @07:32PM (#23030990)
      As someone who majored in psychology, worked in two labs, and read countless psychology papers, I can tell you that 99% of psychologists avoid math when possible, and the other 10% try to use it but make obvious errors.

      To the psychology researcher, it's more about getting the "story" right than actually quantifying anything.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by shermozle ( 126249 )
        I had a somewhat heated discussion with someone who called herself a psychologist but hadn't studied statistics. To my thinking, statistics is central to psychology being called a science. Without statistics you're trading in conjecture and anecdote. When I said psychology without stats isn't science, it didn't go down too well.
        • I had a somewhat heated discussion with someone who called herself a psychologist but hadn't studied statistics. To my thinking, statistics is central to psychology being called a science. Without statistics you're trading in conjecture and anecdote. When I said psychology without stats isn't science, it didn't go down too well.

          When I took my degree (double major: CS and Psych) all psychology undergrads were required to take courses in statistics and scientific methodology. I find it hard to believe that s

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jorghis ( 1000092 )
      I watched 21 and I am pretty sure that they didnt botch the Monty Hall problem. It seemed weird that it would be in a senior level math course at a top notch engineering school, but the way they described it was mathematically correct.
      • Re:Hmmm.... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by wildsurf ( 535389 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @11:25PM (#23032490) Homepage
        Here's an even better problem:

        Suppose Monty Hall gives you a choice of two envelopes. Each envelope contains a check, and one of them is written for TWICE the amount of the other. So you pick an envelope.

        Now, Monty gives you the chance to switch envelopes. (Assume Monty always gives you the chance to switch.) Logically, since your envelope contains X, the other envelope can contain either 0.5X or 2X, with 50% probability... So the expected value of switching envelopes is 50% (0.5X + 2X), or 1.25X. So, you should switch.

        But here's the tricky part: Monty now gives you the chance to switch back! Since your new envelope contains Y, then by the same logic as above, the expected value of switching back is 1.25Y... So you should switch back. Right?

        Clearly, something is wrong with this chain of thinking. Can you figure out what it is?
        • Re:Hmmm.... (Score:5, Informative)

          by fractoid ( 1076465 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @02:13AM (#23033266) Homepage

          So the expected value of switching envelopes is 50% (0.5X + 2X), or 1.25X.
          This is wrong. If one envelope contains X and the other contains 2X then the expected gain G from switching is:
          G = 50% * (Gained if we were holding X) + 50% * (Gained if we were holding 2X)
          = 0.5 * (2X - X) + 0.5 * (X - 2X)
          = 0

          So switching envelopes doesn't change the expected value.
    • Re:Hmmm.... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by dbIII ( 701233 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @08:29PM (#23031468)
      I find it even funnier that it is an economist that is saying it. Admittedly some economists are really mathematicians that have wandered in to try to bring some professionalism to a bunch of fortune tellers but in general economists have a bad reputation every time there is an attempt to assert itself as a science. Years ago when I had the misfortune to do an engineering economics subject I was astounded to find that the university level economics text we were using had one version of the compound interest formula for every variable - it was assumed that economics students could not do introductory algebra.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Brandybuck ( 704397 )

        but in general economists have a bad reputation every time there is an attempt to assert itself as a science.

        True. But not all schools of economics try to make themselves a science. It's a difference in methodology. The Austrian School is a notable example, because they specifically reject scientific positivism. The Neoclassicists are obsessed with deriving mathematical formulas, and the Monetarists are obsessed with scientific predictability.

        I sympathize with the Austrians, but realize that the Neoclassi

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        I used to laugh at economists when they claimed to do science too. Then one of my friends at uni showed me the notes from their math course. As a physicist I like to think I can handle a few equations, but they do some serious math. After that, I kept quiet. Keep picking on the psychologists, it's safer.
    • And true... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by mutube ( 981006 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @09:59PM (#23031966) Homepage
      My experience at a the University of Edinburgh ("a good uni") was that Psychologists really don't know math. I spent ~6 months being subjected to lectures on statistical theory about chi-squared and normal distribution that frankly didn't make any sense: "Why do we add +1 here?" "Because it works"


      At the end of the course we were given a summary lecture that (shock horror, ladies fainting at the back) gave us a FORMULA that explained the whole point of what we'd been taught. I wasn't the only person who, at this point, suddenly realised wtf they had been blabbering on for the past 2 months... and more to the point, how much crap they'd been talking. Psychologists were taking formulae based on reason and using them to support conjecture. That's not inflammatory, it's fact.
  • Seems to make sense (Score:5, Interesting)

    by 26199 ( 577806 ) * on Thursday April 10, 2008 @05:41PM (#23030026) Homepage

    The psychologists were claiming that if you choose X over Y then you are more likely to choose Z over Y because your *choice* causes bias against Y. (This fits the observed data).

    The new suggestion is that if you choose X over Y then you are more likely to choose Z over Y because the choice indicates prior bias against Y. The important part being that this holds even if the bias against Y is so small that it is hard to detect. The only thing required is that there is a fixed "preferred order" of the three.

    At least, that's what I understand from the article. Given the field, I also understand that I am most probably wrong :)

    • by jd ( 1658 ) <imipak AT yahoo DOT com> on Thursday April 10, 2008 @06:34PM (#23030492) Homepage Journal
      There are several problems with all of this. The original experiment does not appear to have any control group, it is unclear if the population sampled was genuinely random, the size of group tested seems to have been extremely small for a meaningful statistical study, and (perhaps most important of all), it assumes that mammalian vision is uniform greyscale AND that the candy was monochromatic.

      (That last pair of points are important. Monkeys do not see all colours with equal clarity. Neither do humans, which is why monitors actually have more real-estate set aside for blue than for anything else. Complicating things, colours are usually the product of mixing. They are not "pure". We don't know what the monkeys saw, therefore cannot tell if their decision was influenced by their ability to even see the treats.)

      Personally, I have developed a skepticism of such observational science. Too many possible explanations, yes, but more importatly too little experimentation to eliminate alternatives. If an explanation is put forward and then acted upon, especially in an area like psychology where those being acted upon are likely vulnerable groups, it's important to make sure the explanation is likely to be correct. Likely to be possible isn't good enough.

      What would I suggest? Well, in the 1950s through to the last few years, options have been limited. These days, though, you can take fMRIs, MRIs and CAT scanners into the field. During the Chernobyl accident, it was fairly standard procedure for MRIs on trucks to be used to scan farm animals for contamination. See the brain in action as it makes the choices. See when the choice is made and which neural pathways were involved. Much better than speculating about what's going on. If you want more data, scientists decoded the optic fibre transmissions of cats ten years ago, or thereabouts. We can literally see if that plays a part in the decision.

      You still end up doing statistics, sure, but with far more numbers that have far more meaning behind them and far less room for interpretation.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Ed Avis ( 5917 )
        If monkeys were unable to reliably distinguish red, blue and green M&Ms, then they would have no systematic preference for one colour over another, and the experiment would not have found statistically significant evidence for such a preference (whatever its cause). However the experiments did find the monkeys have preferences about which colours they like.

        You could equally well run the experiment with three types of treat - say peanuts, brazil nuts and pecan nuts - as long as individual monkeys have p
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by PRMan ( 959735 )

        There is another problem.

        Not to brag, but I have very acute taste buds. So much so, that when I was in high school, I would put M&Ms in my mouth with my eyes closed and be able to tell which color it was with nearly 100% accuracy.

        The reason I could do this is that the dyes actually taste different.

        • Dark Brown - Lots of red dye
        • Tan - Anyone could taste these
        • Orange - Red dye and yellow dye
        • Yellow - Yellow dye only
        • Green - Blue dye and yellow dye

        Now that they have added pure red and pure blue (n

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by a whoabot ( 706122 )
      If anyone wants some interesting stuff to read about irrational choices that humans have near-pathologies in that they constantly make them across the board, read some Tversky and Kahneman, or Robyn Dawes. Here's an example about a Tversky and Kahneman experiment characterised by Dawes in Rational Choice in an Uncertain World:

      "...Tversky and Kahneman offered each subject a bet. They would roll a fair die with four green (G) and two red (R) ones, and the subject made a choice between betting that the seque
  • by ZombieRoboNinja ( 905329 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @05:42PM (#23030032)
    Marilyn vos Savant explained the problem in Parade magazine, and a whole bunch of math professors wrote in to tell her that she was wrong... turns out it's kind of a bad idea to play "gotcha" with someone who has an IQ of 228.
    • And who stole the entire problem, lock stock and barrel, from Martin Gardner without citation.
    • by wurp ( 51446 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @05:56PM (#23030136) Homepage
      I read one of Marilyn Vos Savant's books, and in it she listed 9 as a prime...

      She does seem to be brilliant, but everyone makes mistakes, and calling them on them will educate them if they were wrong, and educate you otherwise.
      • I read one of Marilyn Vos Savant's books, and in it she listed 9 as a prime...

        But there's a more-than-50% chance that 9 is prime!

        I test primeness by dividing the test-number by all integers, from 2 through the test-number's square root, looking for a zero remainder. So, first, I divided 9 by 2. I worked on this for a while, and ended up with a nonzero remainder. So far, 9 looks prime, and I've already tested half of the potential divisors! In fact, there's just one more potential divisor to try: the number 3. I'm almost done, and everything rides on this final calculation. There's a lot of uncertainty here.

        What are the chances that 9 is just going to happen to be divisible by the very last potential divisor that I try? I'll grant you that the chances are non-zero; there really are some composite numbers out there. But the chances aren't one, either. For example, when I was testing 17 for primeness, the last potential divisor I tried was 4, and it didn't work. This last calculation could go either way.

        So here we are, having tested half of the possible divisors, and so far 9 is looking prime and there's just one more divisor to test against. So, I ask you: do you want to bet 9's primeness/compositeness on this last calculation? I'll make it easier for you: I tell you right now, that 9 is just like 17, in that it is not divisible by 4. And then, I'll even give you an option: we can finish the calculation by dividing 9 by 3, or you can change your candidate divisor to 5, now that you know 4 doesn't work. Well.. what'll it be?

    • Marilyn vos Savant explained the problem in Parade magazine, and a whole bunch of math professors wrote in to tell her that she was wrong... turns out it's kind of a bad idea to play "gotcha" with someone who has an IQ of 228.
      You obviously haven't read her absolutely idiotic book about Fermat's Last Theorem.
    • by melikamp ( 631205 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @06:38PM (#23030522) Homepage Journal

      The problem can be easily misunderstood. If it is a known rule of the game that after we choose a door, a door with a goat is opened, then it always pays to change our choice: as TFA indicates, it raises our odds to 2/3.

      If, however, opening a goat door is the host's choice, then we are entering a poker-like situation. For example, if the host only chooses to reveal a goat when we choose correctly, then changing our choice will cause us to loose every time! And in general, for each strategy that a host might employ, there is an optimal counter-strategy.

      In the latter scenario, it may be our goal simply to preserve our initial odds. If so, it pays to toss a coin on the second choice. This way, quite regardless of the host's strategy, we will have our odds at 1/3 or above.

    • by STrinity ( 723872 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @07:32PM (#23030994) Homepage

      Marilyn vos Savant explained the problem in Parade magazine, and a whole bunch of math professors wrote in to tell her that she was wrong
      In that case the mathematicians were correct. Vos Savant left out a key criteria when explaining the problem -- that Monty Hall knew what was behind each door and always chose to open one containing the boobie prize. That gives the game a memory and gives the player an advantage in the second part. If Monty just chooses randomly, as Vos Savant's version implied, the mathematicians would be correct.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by fru1tcake ( 1152595 )
        Says who? The transcript of the original article and responses [] clearly shows that the game show host knew where the car was:

        Suppose you're on a game show, and you're given the choice of three doors. Behind one door is a car, behind 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?

  • We're being played (Score:5, Informative)

    by Naughty Bob ( 1004174 ) * on Thursday April 10, 2008 @05:43PM (#23030038)
    According to this site [], Dr. Chen is being quite devious, seemingly in order to discredit a colleague.

    In truth, the 1956 experiment may have had flaws (though Chen's paper doesn't prove this), but many subsequent ones have upheld the original findings, and are not subject to the alleged problems.
    • by yuna49 ( 905461 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @06:11PM (#23030294)
      Indeed. There's considerable evidence in favor of reductions in cognitive dissonance as a motivating psychological force from other types of studies and other disciplines. For instance, in my field of political science, the evidence is pretty overwhelming that citizens systematically misperceive candidates' positions to make them more similar to the citizens' own preferences. Voters often engage in "projection," believing that candidates' they prefer hold positions like the voters' own, even when those aren't the positions the candidates actually hold. The opposite process also occurs, where voters believe that candidates they dislike hold positions those voters dislike regardless of the candidates' true preferences. My own dissertation research on voters for the British Liberal Party in the 1960's and 1970's also confirmed these hypotheses.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by smallfries ( 601545 )
      The problem with Blogs is that they are inevitabley the whining and yapping of dogs that don't know any better. The worthless opinion that you link to fails to explain the original experiment correctly before weighing in. While it doesn't add anything of value, I guess it lets you slur the reputation of Dr Chen which is what you apparently wanted to do.

      Chen didn't try to prove that the experiment was definitely flawed - he showed that their own reasoning for why it was correct was not valid. That is there w
  • Dude (Score:4, Funny)

    by bogie ( 31020 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @05:43PM (#23030044) Journal
    What the hell are you talking about?
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by u8i9o0 ( 1057154 )

      What the hell are you talking about?

      Yeah, no kidding.

      The "Monty Hall problem" link in the summary informed me that I need Flash to understand the problem.
      However, on that page they then offer "Need to know more? 50% off home delivery of The Times."

      This confuses me terribly - if I now pick the home delivery choice, does the probability of learning about the Monty Hall problem go down 50%?

      Damn - I should have picked the Flash answer from the start. :(

  • Hey janitors erm "editors" how about doing some editing and cleaning up that summary?
  • by Ralph Spoilsport ( 673134 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @05:47PM (#23030062) Journal
    I read the article, but I still don't see it.

    door 1 - door 2 - door 3

    I pick door 1, monty shows me what's behind door 3 - a goat. Door 1 might have a goat or a car, door 2 might have a goat or a car. Sounds like 50/50 to me - I don't see the benefit of changing my choice. I don't have any evidence of a goat or car behind 1 or 2. I picked 1, and without evidence, I don't see how changing my choice will make it better.

    I don't think this has anything to do with cognitive dissonance at all. It's a question of probability. There were 3 - my odds of success were 1 out 3. Monty shows me that one of them is bad, so now my odds are 1 out of 2. In any particular Monty event, the odds will always be 50/50. If you ALWAYS pick door 1, and if Monty ALWAYS shows you door (not 1) is a goat, then your odds will always be 50/50, assuming the assignment of the car or goat to door 1 or 2 is always truly random and fair.

    What am I missing?


    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by bunratty ( 545641 )
      They can't move the goats or car during the game. Therefore, changing your door choice will change your chances of winning from 1/2 to 2/3.
      • by wurp ( 51446 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @06:03PM (#23030208) Homepage
        No, changing your door choice changes your chances of winning from 1/3 to 2/3.

        When you choose one door out of three, and one of those three was pre-chosen randomly to be "the winner", your chance of having picked the right door is 1/3. At least one of the other two doors is not the winner, so the fact that Monty can show you that one is not the winner doesn't change your chance of having chosen the winner.

        HOWEVER, now your chance is the same (1/3), but the chance of either the door you chose or the remaining door closed door being the winner is 100%. Therefore the chance that the remaining door is the winner is 2/3. Switch doors to double your chances.

        I have a BS in math (not statistically oriented, but I had the normal discrete math sequence) and I still had to think about this a lot before I switched answers from the wrong one to the right one :-)
        • Sorry, that was a typo. Yes, of course the chances change from 1/3 to 2/3. Did I type it right this time?
        • by forestgomp ( 526317 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @07:34PM (#23031014)
          One thing that I think needs to be pointed out, however, is that for the odds to increase from 1/3 to 2/3, the player must know for sure that the host will *always* uncover a goat after the player's first choice irrespective of initial choice of goat vs. car. If the host's decision to uncover or not to uncover a goat is related to the player's initial choice, one can't say anything about the new odds.
    • by Jeremy Erwin ( 2054 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @05:57PM (#23030146) Journal
      It's quite simple.

      Suppose the car is behind door number one.

      If you pick door number one, then Monty has a choice of picking door number two, or three. If you switch, you lose.

      If you pick door number two, then Monty must open door number three. If you switch, you win.

      If you pick door number three, then Monty must open door number two. If you switch, you win.

      Monty's choice of which door to open is constrained in two out of three choices. Pick the door he didn't open, and you'll win two out of three times.

      But the problem assumes that Monty has to offer you that choice. On the game show, he didn't.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by zulater ( 635326 )
      Look at it this way.
      Your original odds were 1/3. Monty has a 2/3 chance of having the right one. Monty's odds of having the right one is greater than your odds of having the right one so statistically you should switch.
      Look at it by way of cards (in the article).
      You need to pick the ace of hearts. Monty will then go through the deck and pick the ace of hearts or a random card. He will then show you the other 50 "goats" and ask if you want to trade. You have a 1/52 chance of picking it. Monty then h
    • by rmcd ( 53236 ) * on Thursday April 10, 2008 @06:00PM (#23030182)
      Monty's choice of a door to open is not random -- he has to pick a door that doesn't have a car. Say you pick door 1. Here are the three equally-likely possibilities:

      If 1 has the car, he can pick either door. If you switch, you lose. Prob 1/3
      If 2 has the car, Monty *has* to open 3. If you switch, you get the car, Prob 1/3
      If 3 has the car, Monty *has* to open 2. If you switch, you get the car, Prob 1/3

      Thus, there's a 2/3 chance of getting the car when you switch.

      The other way to think about this is that Monty is revealing no information about *your* door when he opens one of the other two. Thus, the probability that your door has the car must be 1/3 both before and after Monty opens one of the other doors. Since there's only one closed door left, the car is behind it with prob = 2/3.
    • What you're missing is that Monty might have shown you the goat behind door 2, instead of 3. The fact that he didn't tells you something, and the consequence of that knowledge is that door 2 is a better choice than door 1.
    • I have no idea what it has to do with cognative dissonance. But the reason it's better to switch is the following:

      You have a 1/3rd probability of choosing the car initially and a 2/3rds probability of choosing the goat. If you do not switch, you have a 1/3rds probability of having the car. After one of the other doors has been revealed to be a goat, however, the following is true: If you originally picked a car, you will get a goat. If you originally picked a goat you will get a car. Since you had a
    • Because your initial probability of picking the car isn't 50/50, it's 2:1 against the car. You choose from 3 doors, remember, not 2. So initially the probability is 1/3rd that you've chosen the car, 2/3rds that the car is behind one of the doors you haven't chosen. Then Monty opens one of the doors you haven't chosen. He's constrained to open a door with a goat behind it, but the fact that he's opened a door doesn't change the initial probabilities. So the probabilities remain 1/3rd that you've chosen the c

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Nos. ( 179609 )
      Wikipedia has a much better explanation. Basically, if you stick with your original door, you have a 1/3 chance of winning. If you switch, you have a 2/3 chance of winning: []
    • by spun ( 1352 )
      Your first choice has a one in three chance of being wrong. Your second choice has a 50/50 chance of being wrong. Your first choice has a greater chance of being wrong, therefore, you should change it.

      It has nothing to do with cognitive dissonance. The cognitive dissonance experiment has been show to contain a similar type of error, that is all. I don't think you really read the article.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      Try thinking of the monty hall problem with 1000 doors. Your initial pick of 1 door has 1/1000 of being correct. Monty then opens 998 of the other 999 doors to show that the prize is not there. Should you switch to the other remaining door when asked or not? (You should: the other door has probability 999/1000 of being the one with the prize) The thing you are missing in your analysis is the extra information gained when Monty opens the oher door.
    • by EMeta ( 860558 )
      If you picked the car the first time (1/3rd chance), and then you switch you lose. If you picked a goat the first time (2/3 chance), then you switch, you win, because you can only the car is left.

      If you pick car first (1/3) and don't switch, you win. If you pick goat first (2/3) and don't switch, you lose.

      Better yet, imagine that there was 2,001 doors, one car and 2,000 goats, and then when you picked a door 1,999 other goats were revealed. Now you know almost for certain that you picked a goat, so y
    • by davidpfarrell ( 562876 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @06:45PM (#23030592) Homepage
      My wife and step-son asked me to clarify this probability after getting home from watching "21".

      I realized that the door analogy wasn't working as it didn't help them visualize 'possession of the odds'

      Instead I explained it as follows:

      We're going to play the game with 10 boxes - 9 boxes are empty and 1 box contains a prize.

      My wife is asked to pick a box and she is handed the box that she chose.

      Then my step-son is handed the other 9 boxes.

      I then ask both my wife and step-son what each ones odds are of having the prize is. The agree on :

      Wife : 1 in 10 (or 10%) chance of having the prize
      Step-Son : 9 in 10 (or 90%) chance of having the prize

      At this point I explain the physical-ness of my son 'holding the odds' - It is clear to both that he is in possession of 90% of the odds.

      I ask my wife, at this moment, with her holding 1 box and he holding 9 boxes, if she would like to switch possession and trade her 1 box for his 9

      She of course says 'heck yeah!'

      They both have an 'ahah!' moment and I don't really have to go any further, but I did for completeness.

      I make a statement that my step-sons 90% is evenly distributed across the boxes he posses - currently 9 of them.

      Now I start opening my step-sons boxes, one at a time - Boxes guaranteed NOT to contain the prize

      After opening one of the 9 boxes, leaving my step-son with 8 boxes, I point out that he is still in possession of 90% of the odds, but now those odds are distributed between the 8 remaining boxes.

      Then you remove one more box, along with explanation, and they see the pattern - The odds stay the same, and are still in my step-son's possession, but are continuously distributed among fewer boxes.

      Finally both my wife and step-son are each holding one box.

      I bring back the fact that my step-son is still in possession of 90% of the odds, but that entire 90% is wrapped up in that one single box.

      With a final closing - that they were patient enough to listen to, since they asked me to explain after all - I point out to my wife that, since she was willing to trade 1 box for 9 boxes earlier, she must certainly be willing (if not eager) to trade her 1 box for my step-son's 1 box.

      They really connected the dots pretty fast once I placed the prize in a box and had them each holding the boxes - Putting a physical location to the odds.
  • by Prien715 ( 251944 ) <> on Thursday April 10, 2008 @05:48PM (#23030082) Journal
    From an older article by the same author article []:

    Since she gave her [correct] answer [to the Monty Hall Problem], Ms. vos Savant estimates she has received 10,000 letters, the great majority disagreeing with her. The most vehement criticism has come from mathematicians and scientists, who have alternated between gloating at her ("You are the goat!") and lamenting the nation's innumeracy.

    Since some math PhDs got it wrong too, isn't it a bit disingenuous to claim its the psychologists are the issue as the article title states?
  • Indeed (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sustik ( 90111 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @06:03PM (#23030204)
    This reminds me the story my high school teacher told me:

    Some researchers involved in pchycology (social behaviour etc.) came to high schools and drew up the friendship graph of the class. (Maybe school works differently where you live, we had a class of size 30-40 students attending exactly the same lectures.)

    They assumed friendship to be mutual (if not, than it was not considered friendship). One clever cookie made the observation that almost always there is a group of 6 students who all friends to each other (a clique), or alternatively a group of 4 students, who do not like each other.

    There were excited discussions among the researchers what social forces are the reason that one of the above situations always seemed to occur.

    They were somewhat disillusioned when our math teacher explained them Ramsey's theorem. Since R(6, 4) is between 35 and 41, indeed one can expect either a frienship or hateship clique to appear with quite high probability... (This does not mean that properties of the frienship graph worth not examining, but one needs to know the math to do it properly.)
  • by ryu1232 ( 792127 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @06:10PM (#23030288)
    I started questioning this article before the end of the first sentence. An Economist, calling a Psychologist "wrong" about math?
    One should remember what happens when you put 50 economists in a room - you get 100 opinions - one for each hand.
    I recognize that the author of the article may be correct, I just couldn't help commenting on the first sentence.
  • by geekoid ( 135745 ) <`dadinportland' `at' `'> on Thursday April 10, 2008 @06:14PM (#23030318) Homepage Journal
    HR people.

    If you are sick on a Friday or Monday, they assume you are 'taking a long weekend' even though there is a 2/5 chance someone will be sick on those work days. 40% of the time it would be Monday or Friday. More so for a 4 day work week.
  • by jdbolick ( 804666 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @06:25PM (#23030404)
    Amusingly, cognitive dissonance theory predicts that psychologists will rationalize their error and insist that it doesn't invalidate their conclusions.
  • by DynaSoar ( 714234 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @06:25PM (#23030408) Journal
    TFA has been adequately refuted, so I'll forego more on that. And despite the inflammatory nature of the title and claims here, it is unfortunately too correct too often.

    I've been told by "superiors" to perform certain analyses because "everyone does", and they gave me references which supposedly showed these were proper. When I looked these up, the authors not only made no claims supporting their necessity, but both stated that the researcher should know enough about what they're doing to know what analyses to perform. I took my instructions to the statistics consultant for our department, and without showing him the references he made the same claims as both authors, contradicting the rationale given by those who gave me the instructions. I've seen many cases of psychologists performing statistical analyses based on their knowledge of how to use SPSS et al., rather than any fundamental grasp of the maths required by the design. Perhaps the most egregious error is their faith in fMRI analyses via statistical probability mapping, when the correction factor required by the 10^4 to 10^5 simultaneous T-tests makes any one result within the traditional collective p > .05 significance level to have an individual p value in the 10^-6 to 10^-9 range. That's a hell of a requirement for a single test, and very unlikely to actually exist. "Figure the odds" applies, and they don't seem to grasp that they don't grasp it.

    On the other hand, some of us can apply such analyses as tensor calculus and Gabor transforms to dendritic electrical fields, showing where each of those are correct and where each fail, and can correctly apply nonlinear, N-dimensional statistical testing of time/frequency maps produced by continuous wavelet transform. But of those of us who can do these things, I know of none who learned of them, much less how, within the confines of a psychology department. (Well, except for the Gabor stuff, as used and taught by Karl Pribram, that being the only case I know of).

    "Everything I Needed To Know I Learned At The Santa Fe Institute". No, not everything, but that'd make a hell of a book.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by drfireman ( 101623 )
      There's no question that your story about a researcher with no clue what s/he was doing is repeated often in psychology, and probably in other fields as well.

      However, your example from fMRI speaks to complete ignorance of the field, and I'd like to force you to defend it. Thousands of fMRI experiments have been carried out, and this standard for significance is often met. When you say "very unlikely to actually exist," I can't imagine what you're thinking, since this statement is so easily falsified (in f
  • by ThinkFr33ly ( 902481 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @06:27PM (#23030432)
    It's funny, this problem was just being discussed [] on the SGU forums. It happened to be given as a puzzle on a recent SGU podcast [], before the NYT story was run.

    Anyway, here is the simple explanation that I've found helps people realize their error in thinking:

    The problem is a lot easier if you think about it in an "outcome" based fashion.

    In other words, what are the three possible outcomes given that the person always switches their door?

    [car] [goat] [goat]

                Choose door 1. Host reveals door 3. Switch to door 2. NO CAR.
                Choose door 2. Host reveals door 3. Switch to door 1. CAR.
                Choose door 3. Host reveals door 2. Switch to door 1. CAR.

    What are the three results? NO CAR, CAR, and CAR. In other words, always switching your answer results in a 2/3 chance of getting a car.

    If we repeat this process but we never switch our door, you get:

                Choose door 1. Host reveals door 3. No switch. CAR.
                Choose door 2. Host reveals door 3. No switch. NO CAR.
                Choose door 3. Host reveals door 2. No switch. NO CAR.

    Now we only have a 1 in 3 chance of getting the car.
  • Let me be an asshat (Score:4, Informative)

    by Daimanta ( 1140543 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @08:26PM (#23031446) Journal
    See this link for the solution: []

    Look at the picture and be amazed.

    Honestly, 100s of comments on /. trying to describe it and a simple picture was the thing that helped me get it.
  • by glwtta ( 532858 ) on Thursday April 10, 2008 @08:57PM (#23031622) Homepage
    Do you get to keep the goat?

Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. - Paul Tillich, German theologian and historian