Thursday, May 08, 2008

The MONTY PAUL Dilemma: How to get a free "six-pack" of Dr. Paul's favorite beer

Exhibit A

On Tuesday, April 15, 2008 I attended a lecture by Arie Maharshak that presented some research he had done with David Pundak. There were three things that got my mind whirring (my wife would say it was “clanking”). First, and among other things, Arie reviewed the Monty Hall dilemma, which I will describe in a moment. Second, how well attended the presentation was by faculty and administrators, including our president! And finally, the conspicuous absence of students.

There are approximately 4500 students at Robert Morris University. None of which found the time to attend the Rooney Scholar lecture. By the way, there was a fantastic spread of delicious snacks, all free for the gobbling, but no students. Why? I have a few thoughts, but first, the Monty Hall dilemma.

There are lots of website discussions and simulations about this puzzle on the web, so I invite the reader to go find some and play around if you do not believe (or understand) my telling. Essentially, it goes like this: Imagine three doors, each leading to a free prize. However, only one prize behind one of the three doors is worthwhile (e.g., a six-pack of Dr. Paul’s favorite beer). The other two doors each hide something worthless (e.g., empty bottles of Dr. Paul’s favorite beer). You get to pick one of the doors. Let’s say you select door number three. Now, before that door is opened, I show you that behind door number one, there is a worthless prize (empty bottle). Now, here is the puzzle: If you like, you may switch your choice to door number two, or you can keep your original door number three. Is it a good idea to switch, a bad idea to switch, or does it matter?

The answer is that you should switch. Door number two is twice as likely to hide the prize than door number three.

All this writing is making me thirsty. There is now only five bottles left of Dr. Paul’s six-pack of favorite beer. Sorry.

Exhibit B

Over the years, I have asked students to write little papers for class. Unfortunately, it seems that the educational value of this sort of assignment has diminished. Instead of doing what I’d hoped; actually putting some thought into the paper topic, students have turned the assignments into scavenger hunts. They pop onto the internet, locate a search engine, type in a few key words, skim some resulting pages for choice paragraphs or sentences to cut and paste into “their” paper. Of course, I do not mean to lump all students into this characterization. So, those of you reading this who actually follow through as intended, nice job!

To combat this plagiaristic trend, I have modified my paper assignments so that they require only self-reflection, personal opinion, and/or basic brainpower. Despite that, I still get scavenger hunt students who turn in papers plagiarized from the internet. Some students, if they cannot find information about the topic on the internet, simply give up! All that they needed to do was spend the same amount of time they wasted searching the internet just thinking about the topic. However, because the internet knew nothing about the topic, neither did the student.

Hm! I see that I’ve downed another bottle and I don’t even recall opening that second one! Ok, a four-pack is better than nothing, right?

Exhibit A

One of the points of Arie’s talk was that students (people, really) tended to rely on naïve intuition to understand the world. Or, put another way, we tend to be lazy thinkers who prefer to derive speedy answers to questions rather than try to think through them using scientific reasoning.

This is, of course, an over-simplification of Dr. Maharshak’s talk. However, in that, there is another point to be made: We prefer over-simplification to complex answers. The trend and general advice is to try to present “sound bite” education. Keep the students’ attention! Entertain! Keep It Simple Stupid! I’ve had students who defended their poor grades by explaining that the class was too “boring” for them to do well in.

As it turned out, though, as much of the attention was focused on student thinking (or lack thereof) I was a bit surprised when the president of the university made a comment. He was referring to a semi-popular book (Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell), in which it appears that intuitive thinking among those with plenty of life -or business- experience is actually pretty good. This point was reinforced by an administrator from the nursing program who claimed that research has shown that seasoned doctors are able to intuit diagnoses with great accuracy (i.e., the “educated guess” effect).

So, what was the point of these comments? To me, they seemed to defend the use of intuition. Or, at least attempt to put “intuition” into a more favorable light by indicating that, under the right conditions, a “lazy” (my bias) approach to thinking might actually be ok.

An obvious fallacy here, and one that seems to illustrate the trouble educators have in trying to bring critical thinking to the masses, is that there is no guideline for when a person has enough experience and knowledge to be able to justify an intuitive approach to thinking. Any defense of lazy thinking reinforces the whole line of thinkers, from novice to experienced, to simply rely on their gut. Lazy thinking wins again!

To make matters worse, because of other biases in thinking (such as the confirmation bias), people are much less likely to seek out anything but confirmatory evidence for their beliefs. They will even go so far as to ignore, outright reject, reinterpret, or even overlook evidence that conflicts with their view.

So, when a seasoned doctor uses intuition to make a diagnosis, or a cigar-saturated CEO makes an important business decision, they may be much less willing to consider additional sources of evidence… especially evidence that might be contrary to their gut reasoning.

People should always strive to make use of the best information available. Sometimes the best we have is intuition. In which case, gamble with the experts. However, unless time is critical, it is rare that intuition is the best information from which to work. So, beware the person who contrives to waste time so that intuition is the only viable option left!

So, how to get my beers? Learn and practice systematic thinking strategies. Familiarize yourself with the “scientific method” and challenge your thinking. It’s better to point to the data as an excuse for failure than everyone pointing at you and your stupid gut. So, to start, work out an explanation for my variation to the Monty Hall puzzle described below. With my apologies to the scavengers, I’ve done my best to come up with a variation that is NOT to be found elsewhere on the web. Please think about it.

I just burped. That bottle went down too fast! There’s not a lot of things more gross than a beer burp. Clearly I cannot give away three beers. That would be an odd number. So, let’s just make it two bottles, ok?

Exhibit C: The Monty Paul Dilemma

Imagine four doors (A, B, C, D). Each door hides a prize. Only one prize is worthwhile (beer). The other doors hide crappy prizes (empty bottles).

You now select a door, let’s go with “D”.

Before I open the door, I show you that door “B” had an empty bottle behind it.

This means that three doors remain (A, C, and your choice: D).

Question: Is it worth your while to switch (i.e., pick either Door-A or Door-C), is it a bad idea to switch (i.e., you should keep Door-D), or does it matter?

Ultimately, it isn't a matter of having to learn anything new so much as making a choice to try. Reason it out. List what you know, list what you don't know but could learn, and list the stuff that is irrelevant but distracting. Those last few items are your gut talking. Ignore the gut, at least for now.

I have one bottle of my favorite beer left! I promise I will not drink it. In fact, I will keep it chilled in my little office refrigerator until someone comes to claim the prize with a correct answer (with defense) to this dilemma.