I recently spent two days on location in Las Vegas with certified mad men of science Jason Silva and Tim Shaw of the National Geographic Channel's Brain Games and None of the Above. We were somewhere off US95, on the edge of the desert, when the cognitive illusions began to take hold.
Day One: Brain Games
The crew was already set up and working when we arrived. The host of Brain Games, Jason Silva was running his lines, explaining a premise involving three doors, three lovely ladies and one crisp, shiny $100 bill while the camera spun and flew around him like Sandra Bullock on a space arm.
Silva has the kind of infectious charisma that it takes to parlay techno-shamanistic rants about the Transcension Hypothesis into lucrative basic cable gigs. In this particular case, he was explaining a mathematical puzzle with the kind of enthusiasm one might use to describe giving birth to a child while on acid.
The Monty Hall Problem (or as it’s known among people who don’t want their TV shows to get sued, The Game Show Problem) breaks down like this: suppose I show you three closed doors, behind one of which is a prize, and allow you to pick one. Suppose further that before opening your door to see if you have guessed correctly, I reveal which of the two remaining doors does not contain a prize (at least one of them won't, clearly.)
With these supposes in mind, should you:
a) change your pick?
b) stick with your original pick? Or…
c) it doesn't matter?
I won't spoil it. There's a whole wide internet out there if you don't know the answer. But suffice to say that this one has vexed some pretty smart people over the years, even though the correct answer is easy to derive mathematically. It's not that the problem is difficult; it's that our preconceptions about what the right answer should be cloud our judgment. And even smart mathematicians have preconceptions.
At dinner, show runner Jerry Kolber (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, American Weed) played tortoise to Jason's hare. While Jason made the rounds talking up human transcendence, the Singularity and beaming our minds into space, Kolber waxed poetic about the potential of reality television to enlighten as well as entertain:
"Our first two seasons were about optical illusions, which are more visceral. Now we're focusing more on cognitive illusions, revealing how our prejudices color the way we think about the world. I like to change things up to keep the show from getting too formulaic. I want people to be surprised with each new episode."
Day Two: None of the Above
The crane towered 100 feet over Industrial Rd. Behind it, the pale and weathered ghost of Circus Circus stood like a clown-themed Overlook Hotel and for a moment I wondered just how much ether it would take to spend the night in such a place.
Across the street, where we were, the sign over Battlefield Vegas reads "Fire A Machine Gun Today! Largest Selection Of Fully Automatic Weapons! What A Unique Wedding Party!"
Unique, indeed, but sadly, we had no time for such high caliber nuptial frivolity. We were here about serious business. Tim Shaw, our mad man provocateur master of ceremonies who gave up a career in engineering and took up hosting prank-themed radio programs in the UK in order to "get a girlfriend" (you know, the way you do) was a man on a mission. He wanted to know...he needed to know...which would fall faster from a 100 ft crane? A bowling ball? A piano? Or a javelin?
Shaw brings a prankster's joy to his love of science: "Science isn't about knowing the answer, it's about knowing how to discover the answer. It's not knowledge, it's experience. The universe is pranking us all the time and the more open you are to experiencing it, the more fun you have with it. Newton's laws of motion tell us that all three will hit at the same time in the absence of drag. What do you reckon?"
"The piano may experience a little drag," I opined cautiously. "But from that height, none of them should get close to terminal velocity. How much air could the piano possibly displace? I think they'll hit at about the same time."
"I hope the piano slows down a bit," Tim said with slight scowl. "I'd like to talk about air resistance. But if they land at the same time, we'll talk about Newton's laws of motion. That's the great thing about science!"
And with that, Shaw gathered his contestants, took down their predictions, counted down from ten and released the three objects, which descended to Earth and hit…
...well, that would be telling.
Jason Shankel is a writer and creative developer who is so money and he doesn't even know it.