John Kay on intuition


30 August 2006

The second part of John Kay’s article that we wrote about recently is now available online called The maths may be simple but intuition is more use.

Our ancestors gambled around camp-fires on the savannahs thousands of years ago. The ancient Greeks had games of chance, embryonic financial markets and some of the finest mathematicians who have ever lived. But they did not discover the rather simple arithmetic of probability and the methods we use today are no more than 300 years old.

Even today, many people struggle to learn probability theory and experts make mistakes in applying it. This can have disastrous results, as in the imprisonment of innocent mothers whose children had been victims of unlikely, but not that unlikely, sequences of accidental death. Stephen Jay Gould is only one of many science writers to have observed that human minds are not well adapted to dealing with issues of probability.

Read the article if you are still looking for a solution to the Monty Hall problem posed in the last article, which briefly is this: Imagine that you are winning on a quiz show and get to choose between two boxes. When you have made your choice, the host shows you that it contains £100. Will you stick with your original choice, or switch to the other box?

Surprisingly, there is a kind-of optimal strategy, but if you are any good at stats and probability then you will probably (pun intended) not find it.