Quickies: Mansplaining to Marilyn vos Savant, Fairy Tales, and Legalizing Raw Milk

  • 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.”
  • One Weird Trick Female Animals Use to Control Who Gets Them Pregnant – “This is a much under-discussed phenomenon: Some female animals can control their reproductive process after mating, even after sex with multiple partners. No matter the circumstances—whether their sexual act occurred after being chased down by a pack of male animals, or after choosing the male with the flyest mating dance—they can influence paternity clandestinely, all the while concealing their decisions from competing males.”
  • Down and dirty fairy tales: How this rediscovered stash of darker-than-Grimm stories destroys our Prince Charming myths – “The translator of a newly discovered trove of 150-year-old tales on the gender-bending surprises found there.” I’m a sucker for old fairy tales and myths.
  • ‘Serial’ Truthers Are Now Doxxing Women – “Those who speak their minds about the podcast are often harassed online and sometimes targeted in real life. And for women with an opinion on the show, it’s much worse.”
  • Why Some States Want To Legalize Raw Milk Sales – “The greatest jump was in outbreaks of severe diarrhea, often the result of drinking raw milk tainted with campylobacter-infected feces. Tauxe says that spike should serve as a reminder that no amount of regulation can make raw milk safe. But NASDA’s Ehart suggests some states may not be legalizing raw milk sales to condone it. Rather, he says legalization may give public health agencies the power to regulate a market that might otherwise exist underground.”
  • For The Evolution Of Marine Creatures, Bigger Is Better, Study Says – “For more than 500 million years, sea creatures have been getting bigger — much bigger as it turns out, according to a study by scientists who say that the evolutionary trend toward larger body size fits with a 19th-century principle known as Cope’s rule. The rule, first posited in the late 1800s by Edward Drinker Cope, ‘states that evolution tends to increase body size over geologic time in a lineage of populations.’ “

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Mary Brock works as an Immunology scientist by day and takes care of a pink-loving princess child by night. She likes cloudy days, crafting, cooking, and Fall weather in New England.

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  1. One has to be very careful with the Monty Hall problem: misstate the hypotheses just a bit, and the problem is very different. I definitely do not defend those who went off the handle replying to vos Savant; her answer was correct for the standard problem. However, the question she quoted was not precise enough. Specifically, the statement of the problem that she replied to did not include the important assumption that the host opens a door that the host knows has a goat, and that the host always does this in each iteration of the puzzle. If the host opens a door at random and it just happens to contain a goat this time, then the probability of winning changes; and if the host does not always offer a chance to change, then you are no longer considering a problem in pure probability theory, and are instead considering a problem that includes a psychological component.

    1. This is pedantic. It’s a brain-teaser with a game show hook meant to illustrate the counter-intuitive nature of probability theory, not a hypothetical about what you should actually do if you were actually a contestant on the actual NBC game show Let’s Make A Deal as hosted by the actual complex psychological agent known as Monty Hall.

  2. @ Arturo Magidin — then it wouldn’t be the Monty Hall Problem. It’s a Monty Hall Problem because it explicitly acknowledges that the host does NOT open a door at random. Monty would NEVER open the door with the car behind it, and that’s the whole point. As for the psychological component, it’s well known that Monty offering them cash to switch prompted them to stay put. But the way Marilyn Dos Savant answered the problem was neither misstated or misleading. Money always shows the goat, it is not random, and the right choice is to switch, always. If you play 1000 times, you should average 666 wins by switching. Period.

    1. Yes; and her answer is 100% correct for the full statement of the classic Monty Hall problem. I’m not disputing that.

      But, first, the original column did not call it “The Monty Hall Problem”, and second, vos Savant did not state the problem: the problem was stated by the questioner and the question quoted by vos Savant. The original column (quoted, e.g., in


      and read:
      “”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 No. 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the other doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, ‘Do you want to pick door No. 2?’ Is it to your advantage to take the switch?”

      It includes the hypothesis that the host knows what is behind the doors, but does not include the assumption that the host always offers a switch. As I said: this problem is very delicate from the mathematical analysis point of view: misstate the hypotheses even a little bit, and it’s a very different problem.

      Of course, the people who “corrected her” claiming it was equal odds for switching were incorrect, given the totality of assumptions given explicitly in the problem, and most of them had an incorrect analysis that *assumed* the host always offers a switch. And if you omit the assumption that the host knows what is behind each door when he opens, but include the assumption that he always opens a door and offers a switch if he reveals a goat, then the odds of winning if you switch if the host happens to reveal a goat are 0.5, not 2/3 (because there is also situations in which you lose automatically, if the host happens to open a door with a car behind it).

      That said, it was not my intention to get into an argument about the correct answer to the Monty Hall problem, but just to point out that while most of her detractors were definitely wrong, the answer as stated was not entirely correct either because it assumed certain hypotheses that were not given in the question *as quoted*.

      1. I love it how your objection is to one thing, but then you make a completely different case that includes events that have already been excluded, and then you make a completely unfounded assumption that Monty Hall would cheat if he accidentally offered the car.

      2. I probably shouldn’t fix your troll math, but if you’re gonna pick that particular nit, you could assume he offers the switch twice as often when you have the correct door. Then the probability actually is 50% and you’re only making one assumption. (Monty Hall has taken the Red Pill!)

        But of course, even if that is true, it doesn’t change our calculation of the probability if we don’t know what his bias is. Without that information, we assume all possibilities are equal, just like we assume that all doors are equally likely to have the car behind them.

        1. Okay, clearly I screwed up; it was not my intention to troll, or to make completely different cases in the two messages. I was trying to bring up the fact that vos Savant was correct in her answer under the standard assumptions of the problem, which she stated in her answer, but that not all those assumptions were explicitly stated in the original question and that this is a potential pitfall for the “Monty Hall” problem. vos Savant herself noted that in follow-ups (see discussion on Wikipedia about this). I clearly failed to do this clearly or appropriately, and I apologize for this and will try to do better in the future.

          To make the same point as the original column, I would bring up vos Savant’s answer to the “two boys problem” as a better example in which there was no issue of even potential ambiguity in the problem as stated by the letter-writer (letter writers, in fact, since she answered essentially the same problem twice), and her answer was again correct (and yet she still got corrected about it in pretty much the same tone).

          1. You should have just left that last paragraph off. Actually, “I screwed up” would have sufficed. Also, did you even actually read the article in question? Please do so again. And really take it in. Really, really take it in. And look at yourself and what you’ve written here. But do it quietly. You might want to put the shovel away.

  3. The “One weird trick female animals use to control who gets them pregnant” link is a great summary of cryptic female paternity choice mechanisms, and overall a really nice article. But I think it overstates the extent to which this has been understudied. Female mate choice was indeed largely ignored in studies of animal behavior throughout most of the 20th century, but in the ’80s and ’90s, this began to change rapidly, thanks in large part to an increase in the number of professional female biologists and the success of feminist criticism in highlighting the assumptions about sex that have biased (and impeded) scientific research. My impression from my own experience is that most biologists these days who study animal behavior and evolution probably get a healthy emphasis on female choice mechanisms, cryptic and overt, as part of their training.

    I feel it’s worth emphasizing this because I think it’s one of the great success stories in the intersection between science and feminism. The biologist Marlene Zuk wrote a paper in 1993 titled “Feminism and the study of animal behavior” which I think nicely describes the change that was happening at the time and its positive impact on science. (I’m afraid it’s probably behind a paywall if you don’t have access to a university library — advocate for openness in scholarly publishing!) This doesn’t mean that the problem is solved and we don’t have to worry about cultural biases in studying animal behavior any more, of course; it is the nature of culture and science that we’ll always need to struggle with that. But the study of female mate/paternity choice mechanisms in animals is such a nice example of success for feminism and feminist criticism in improving the quality of scientific research, and I think it would be a shame to forget that.

    (The PLoS Biology paper cited by the article, which demonstrates a strong literature bias towards males in the study of the anatomy and evolution of animals’ genitals, is pretty interesting, though. I have my own suspicions as to some causes, but regardless the result is quite clear.)

  4. In this case, with the Monty Hall Problem, vos Savant is right, and shame on those that threw in ad hominem arguments.

    However, I recall when Andrew Wiles published his proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem (actually he published the proof of a much more powerful theorem of which FLT was just a minor consequence) and vos Savant wrote a piece claiming he was wrong, wrong, wrong and gave three “proofs”. Her proofs were so far in left field they could barely count as mathematics, and were no where close correct.

    She is, undoubtedly, a very smart person, but sometimes she tries to argue because she is smart she must know what she is talking about…and sometime she just doesn’t.

    However, in the Monty Hall Problem, she is correct.

    1. Completely irrelevant (and off-topic) piece of information that’s not supported at all by any sort of proof or link or anything other than “SHE IS WRONG SOMETIMES! So there. Just have to tell you. She is totally wrong sometimes. I mean, with this she’s right, but this one time she was totally wrong. So neener.”

  5. Raw milk tastes really good and is probably better for your health BUT I do not know that I would trust raw milk that was mass produced.
    I have had goats as pets for years. Last year I milked my own goats, drank the milk and made lots of yogurt and various cheeses. It was a delight.
    Maintaining sterile conditions with your own goat is a good bit of work. It would be even more work with a cow.
    Maintaining sterile conditions with many goats or cows would be a nightmare. I would never drink mass produced milk unless it was pasturized.

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