Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Why Deal or No Deal should have been cancelled

In the Autumn of 2005, Noel Edmonds would return to our screens with a new show called Deal or No Deal. Somehow the show managed to drag out the process of picking random numbers, from 1 to 22, and turn it into TV gold. There wasn't particularly any skill involved, other than perhaps convincing the banker that you were risk-loving in order to get a good deal for your box. 

Looking back, it was amazing to think people actually apologised for opening a random box that contained the £250,000 - as if they were somehow at fault. The contestants would often join hands if a crucial box was about to be opened, willing good fortune in messianic prayer. 

Perhaps the weirdest thing was once a player had accepted an offer, they would continue to carry on playing the game to see what "would have" happened. Noel would frequently chastise a contestant if it turned out they had a higher value number in their box: he was giving people grief for not being able to predict the future. 

My view is that Deal or No Deal should have never been broadcast or at the very least been put on after the watershed. Let's imagine for a moment that there was a TV show that doubted evolution called Ape or Not Ape. My bet is that there would be thousands of complaints by the "science-minded community" and drive it off the air within a matter of weeks.

You are probably thinking now that most people know that Deal or No Deal is rubbish and that I am overreacting.* However, just because you know something and find it easy, doesn't necessarily mean everyone else will. To quote another famous TV host: "it's only easy when you know the answer".

About 40% of the population do not get a C or above in Maths at GCSE and probably will only have a handful of lessons that are devoted to statistics. Yet just a few years ago, lots of kids would be getting taught Noel Edmond's version of probability, every day after school. 

OK, so Noel Edmond's may not be responsible for people believing that holding a rabbit's foot (say) will affect the distribution of events in their favour. However, I am not so sure we should have tacitly endorsed this kind of show either, as I think the percentage of people who believe in supernatural luck is probably quite high.**

You may think this all links to stupidity but supernatural luck is incredibly intuitive. You wear a lucky football shirt to the match and your team win, you attribute the shirt to affecting the outcome. Each time your team wins you feel it's partly down to the shirt and mostly ignore/forget if your team loses. This type of cause and effect reasoning is how we navigate the world. You don't need scientific proof that putting your hand over a candle will burn you, but have you learned this by experience in exactly the same way.

Often people think that the reason supernatural luck is unscientific is due to theoretical reasons. For example, what could possibly be causing the horseshoe to give you a higher chance of winning the lottery? You would have to believe in some supernatural effect that has powers to control the outcome of the numbers. As you cannot see the mechanism, it is unlikely to exist. But try and explain the theoretical reasons why a flame burns you without it sounding equally bizarre. 

Science isn't just about theory. Of course, theory helps us explain things but ultimately science is about proof. Just because evolution provides a plausible theory of why the beaks of finches on the Galapagos have different shapes, it doesn't necessarily mean evolution is what caused it. How we actually go about proving something scientifically is essentially a statistical claim (and if you are interested in finding out how exactly how scientific proof works then we cover it extensively in our new book).

There has been quite a push back to "science" in recent years and I think one of the main reasons is because it focuses too much on theory and not enough understanding scientific proof. The New Atheism movement seems to be dying away as most people claim to be agnostic. I think one of the main reasons for this is that people feel Atheism is more certain than Agnosticism: how can we be so sure God definitely doesn't exist? 

The frustrating thing about all this is that the whole point of scientific proof is that we can never be certain of anything. We do not know for certain, that a flame will always burn us or that evolution is real, but we think it is highly likely that these are both the case. But in order to understand how we go about scientifically proving something we need to have a better understanding of statistics as a society. And until we do, I am not so sure we should be indulging in shows like Deal or No Deal. Now let's all join hands and pray that it never gets recommissioned.


*The irony of all this is that a lot of "smart" people got a lot of the stats wrong about the show. I remember reading a Charlie Brooker review that argued the contestants shouldn't be cheering the other contestants on because if they win, then by the "law of averages" they are more likely to lose. Some people also argued that the person should swap the last box because of the Monty Hall problem, but it isn't a Monty Hall problem. [EDIT: I can't find the Charlie Brooker review of him saying this so I will not besmirch his good name. However, I am pretty sure someone said this.]

**According to this survey by Paddy Power, it's 38% of people. Now, what percentage of people do you think know this survey is biased? But in all seriousness, this poll is likely to survey gamblers, so it is more likely an accurate reflection of people who gamble than the general UK population. However, if this statistic is anywhere close to the true population of gamblers, then I would be worried whether gambling can really be considered an informed choice.


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