Fun with statistics and ‘splaining

Fascinating article on how even some of the most extensively educated minds can struggle with the counter-intuitive nature of statistics, and how freely those struggles can result in storms of condescension and mockery when the person they consider to be incorrect is a woman: The Time Everyone “Corrected” the World’s Smartest Woman

When vos Savant 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.

The Monty Hall Problem had been known and genially discussed in specalist journals since 1975 with no aspersions cast on the conclusion (and was anyway a reiteration of similar problems dating back to 1889 at least). But when Marilyn vos Savant wrote about it in 1990 for her column in Parade magazine, outrage ensued.

Though her answer was correct, a vast swath of academics responded with outrage. In the proceeding months, vos Savant received more than 10,000 letters — including a pair from the Deputy Director of the Center for Defense Information, and a Research Mathematical Statistician from the National Institutes of Health — all of which contended that she was entirely incompetent

You can read samples of these letters in the article, which then goes on to explain in detail and with infographics why vos Savant was nonetheless right all along.

More than 25 years later, arguments over the Monty Hall Problem’s semantics and vos Savant’s response still pervade — mainly centering around the intricacies of the host’s actions.

“Our brains are just not wired to do probability problems very well, so I’m not surprised there were mistakes,” Stanford stats professor Persi Diaconis told a reporter, years ago. “[But] the strict argument would be that the question cannot be answered without knowing the motivation of the host.”

Eventually though, many of those who’d written in to correct vos Savant’s math backpedaled and ceded that they were in error.

An exercise proposed by vos Savant to better understand the problem was soon integrated in thousands of classrooms across the nation. Computer models were built that corroborated her logic, and support for her intellect was gradually restored. Whereas only 8% of readers had previously believed her logic to be true, this number had risen to 56% by the end of 1992, writes vos Savant; among academics, 35% initial support rose to 71%.

I particularly like the maths professor who wrote back to apologise for his earlier criticism, noting that he was “now eating humble pie” and that it had been “an intense professional embarrassment”.

h/t to the most recent Skepchick Quickies – a Quickies link-boost post is published most days.

Categories: education, media, Science

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