Chris DeLine

Cedar Rapids, IA

Humble Pie and the Monty Hall Problem

Published in Blog.

In terms of luck, right now, I feel like I’ve got more than my share. It’s a lot easier to search for clarity within chaos when I’m not losing sleep over where my next paycheck or meal are coming from, or whether or not my kids or family are going to be taken care of. I’m definitely taking that into account this morning. So many things had to go “right” for me to be sitting at home at a laptop right now expanding on my thoughts over a cup of coffee.

Wednesday’s book, The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules our Lives (by Leonard Mlodinow), and Thursday’s book, 12 Steps on Buddha’s Path: Bill, Buddha, and We (by Laura S.), feel similar, or linked in some way, despite being uniquely different from each other. The Drunkard’s Walk, a book I started into a couple weeks back, has delved into the topic of randomness while the latter has thus far introduced Laura’s story of addiction and how her path into Alcoholics Anonymous led her to the teachings of Buddha. In the Foreword Sylvia Boorstein comments, “Everything anyone does is an expression of all the circumstances, connections, and communities that have been part of that person’s experiences.” The not-so-random details of random occurrences.

How did all of this happen around us? How did a chance disease hop species and come to plague the entire planet? Why weren’t nations more prepared? Why don’t hospitals have enough supplies for their workers? Why aren’t government officials better prepared to take action? What landed us here wasn’t a single catastrophe, but a chain of events, an expression of circumstances, connections, and communities that happened create a circumstance far more probable to occur than those in charge considered possible. (Others saw it as not only possible, but probable.)

That’s what The Drunkard’s Walk has elaborated on thus far: How probability can be used to explain why chance occurrences aren’t necessarily as random as we think they are. One story used to communicate this deals with Marilyn vos Savant and the world of outrage she created among academics, researchers, and career thinkers alike when she answered a question in her “Ask Marilyn” column about what’s since become known as the “Monty Hall Problem.” (This is article also outlines the whole situation: “The Time Everyone ‘Corrected’ the World’s Smartest Woman.”) To simplify the situation, the woman with the highest IQ on record answered the following puzzle correctly in her weekly Parade column and was met by tens of thousands of letters (wrongly) explaining how she should go ahead and quit her day job.

“Imagine that you’re on a television game show and the host presents you with three closed doors. Behind one of them, sits a sparkling, brand-new Lincoln Continental; behind the other two, are smelly old goats. The host implores you to pick a door, and you select door #1. Then, the host, who is well-aware of what’s going on behind the scenes, opens door #3, revealing one of the goats. ‘Now,’ he says, turning toward you, ‘do you want to keep door #1, or do you want to switch to door #2?’

Is this just a game of chance, a 50/50 coin toss, or is there something bigger at play here?

There’s a remarkable level of outrage that came in the wake of the the “Ask Marilyn” column. Confusion and bafflement that someone like Marilyn could be so wrong. All of that. But the whole thing was generally harmless (save for the emotional burden vos Savant shouldered amid receiving such negative criticism to her work). Today’s circumstances bear witness to grave results. People are getting sick at a shocking rate, and beneath it all is a fear of death for loved ones, self, and the abrupt end to “normal life” as we’ve always known it.

The COVID-19 outbreak isn’t exactly a probability puzzle on par with the “Monty Hall Problem,” and I’m not trying to dismiss the real life consequences (of which I’m not sure we’re really even aware of yet). What I am saying is that there’s something going on here that I don’t understand. That most all of us don’t understand. But, jumping over to Laura S.’s book, there’s relief in recognizing the “We” involved here. As Boorstein also writes in the 12 Steps foreword, “The author, writing under the pseudonym Laura S., offers this book anonymously, in respect to the Twelve Step commitment to anonymity and in the understanding that no one does anything alone.” Weaving threads together here, there’s something bigger going on that we don’t understand collectively, but understanding that there is a “We” aspect to it all brings with it a sense of humility that not one of us alone can do this on our own.

A moment or two on Facebook and it becomes no secret how people are trying to control this uncontrollable situation as best they can. There I’m seeing a flood of information (or many times, opinion disguised as information), every incoming post a potential life-hack that could be the one thing standing between you and certain death, each being shared and debated ad nauseam. At the core is something I understand, that fear, that uncertainty, that dread, frustration, and maybe even grief. One of the concepts that I was exposed to last year was pre-traumatic stress disorder, and I think that’s at the heart of what’s influencing society today; a sort of unhealthy hum of anticipatory anxiety.

For myself, spirituality is a bit of a nebulous concept, forget any “higher power” or “god” concept, just what “spirituality” means to me. Primarily the concept bears substance for me in the context of connection with other people, or the world around us. But yesterday it also rang true that hope was an element of it. Whether it’s my general disposition or my brain chemistry, I often forget about that part of the equation. If hope is just a trust or belief (faith) that things won’t be as they are forever, any sense of hope becomes exponentially experienced when accepting that things won’t be as they are forever because the future isn’t up to me; that, too, is a We thing.

Again, it’s a hell of a lot easier for me to babble on about all of this while sitting where I am, but that doesn’t diminish the value in the conclusion that the reality of today’s situation might be an opportunity to slow down and reacquaint myself with a sense of where I truly stand as little more than a pea in a world-sized bowl of peas. There’s comfort there. Comfort in realizing and accepting the powerlessness of it all.