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Graeme Archer: Untesting times

Archer_graeme_4 Graeme Archer, Hackney activist and ConservativeHome regular, has his own blog.

Look, I’m not about to go off on one about “dumbing down” in general, or launch a tirade about the pitfalls of popular culture. I’m not an opera buff and I’ve never been the ballet. Though we did go and see Don Giovanni a few months ago. (If you ask me, three hours is a long time to sit and wait for the bit where the Devil appears and yells “Don GioVANNi” towards the end, quite the best bit.) But there’s something very wrong happening in the world of light entertainment, something which I think is getting close to abuse.

Maybe it’s the statistician in me (what a coy way of putting it, why is it so hard just to come out with? My name is Graeme Archer and I AM a STATISTICIAN. There). There’s a quiz show on in the early evenings on Channel Five called “The Grid” which appals me; and “Deal or No Deal” isn’t just an irritating vehicle to herald the Return of the Edmunds, it’s symptomatic of something rotten, a festering nexus at the heart of our culture, where poverty of education finds its manifestation through trick-playing on the public.

The set up of The Grid is a high-tech studio where “players” stand in front of a large cube, each face of which contains (the same) grid of I think 25 squares i.e. 5 rows and 5 columns. The three-dimensional aspect of this set up is quite irrelevant to what occurs on the programme, part and parcel of the con-trick which then takes place, a con-trick which can only happen because the participants are either unaware of what they’re doing, or are willing to suspend their belief in anything rational for the sake of appearing on television.

The programme has multiple rounds and a few variants but it boils down to the following: behind each of the 25 squares is either a sum of money or a black square to indicate that the player loses all or a portion of the sum thus far accumulated. In the final, for example, there might be 4 such “bombs” lurking. The participant names a square by its grid reference, which is then revealed to contain either money or a bomb. Before the sequence begins, the participant is told how many squares contain the hidden bomb. Thus with 4 bombs, the participant has a 4/25 chance of picking a bomb on his or her first go, then 4/24 on the second go, and so on …

What’s my problem with this? It is that, instead of the participant saying “I want A1 (the top left square), then A2 if I am not bombed out, then A3…” and so on, the player, and the “quiz”master, and the audience, all commit a joint deceit of pretending (or believing) that there is some sort of strategy which can lead to a better outcome than simply reading out the codes of the squares in any random sequence. You have to see it to believe it. It’s appalling. Somehow, the people involved have induced a drama from reading out numbers at random, and are imbuing this process with pseudo-meaning. In fact, if you think about it, human participation in this process is irrelevant. One could simply tell the producers that one would pick 5 squares at random, without leaving the comfort of one’s home.

“Deal or no deal” is perhaps slightly less egregious, in that I’m willing to accept that you might require some degree of mathematical sophistication to understand that at any stage in its tortuous process, you can quickly work out the expectation of gain for any box (identical) and whether or not it’s worth continuing, or stopping to take the “banker”’s offer. But it’s been on our screens for months now, and still people seem to think that there’s something almost magical happening. No-one in the media has written an article to expose the essentially void centre of these programmes, which can only succeed – and they do succeed – in a population that has become both frighteningly innumerate and is willing to imbue random processes with a quasi-spiritual meaning.

Does it matter? Yes it does and it should worry Conservatives. Firstly, it’s a very clear signal that something is going wrong with basics in education. Secondly, it is a clear sign that popular culture is becoming non-aspirational: people no longer win prizes for demonstrating proficiency in anything, but merely by having the “skill” to select numbers at random. Thirdly, if people don’t understand that the expected value of one choice from two boxes is half of their total, then explaining the acts of piracy enacted on their pension funds by Brown is not going to be as straightforward as we might anticipate.

For these reasons, George Osborne was right to call for the introduction of financial education in schools. I might want more, and ask for an investigation of what is being taught in the maths syllabus these days. When I was a wee laddie in Scotland, we called these “skills” arithmetic, and nobody left school without a full command of it.

Bah humbug? I know I know I’m a sad old statistician and I should maybe just let people enjoy a harmless bit of fun. But ITV at night-time is pumping out programmes like these, all designed to remove money from gullible viewers. Someone makes money from this – via premium phonelines - or it wouldn’t happen. And so I think there’s something morally wrong happening here, and I hope that our MPs will vote for action to end it – I know that a Commons committee has begun a relevant investigation, but they were quietly sniggered at by the (I assume innumerate) commons sketch writers in the quality press. These latter should have been ashamed of themselves.

On a lighter note! Not all statistical reasoning is intuitive. For a bit of fun, suppose you’re on a quiz show and are faced with three doors, A, B and C. Behind two of the doors is a copy of The Guardian, behind the third is a lovely new iPod. You pick a door and get whatever’s behind it. You want to win the iPod, and being a good statistician, pick a door at random, “A”, say (without clutching your head and shouting “Come ON” at the audience). The host (who knows what lies behind each door) doesn’t open door A, but opens either door B or door C to reveal a copy of The Guardian, and says to you “Do you wish to stay with door A, or switch?”. What ought you to do to maximise your chance of winning? I’ll post the answer later.


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