Which is to say that the Big Monty Hall Book got a (mostly) favorable review from the London Mathematical Society. The reviewer was David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at the University of Cambridge.

I should admit that I don’t generally use the Monty Hall problem with students, as I am not convinced anyone is enlightened by having it explained. But I have had fun teasing people with it, from my girlfriend 35 years ago, to a senior QC at a dinner. However, my first thought was: how can anyone write a whole book on this? Well, Jason Rosenhouse has, and it’s surprisingly good.

Why surprisingly? Skipping ahead:

The book is chatty and welcoming, and the author’s enthusiasm is infectious. There is, however, a rather uneven use of mathematics, with binomial coefficients introduced without definition on page 11, and fairly basic ideas of probability coming much later. I am not sure of the intended audience: serious enthusiasts may find it too basic, while beginners will grind to an exhausted halt well before the end.

To be honest, after 194 pages of Monty Hall I still am not inclined to use the problem in my efforts to inspire people about the joys of probability, statistics and risk. But I am impressed at how much material can be hung onto a single problem, and the author has my sincere admiration for being such a dedicated, if not obsessive, exponent.

Yeah, it was difficult sometimes to decide how much formal mathematics to include. It was my hope that in most cases people could “read around” the more technical mathematics while still following the gist of the story. It is for others to decide if I succeeded. I must say, though, that while I have shown the book to quite a few “serious enthusiasts,” so far no one has accused me of making it too basic!


  1. #1 GAZZA
    April 7, 2010

    Mate, as a proud owner of the book, I think your reviewer is raising impractical objections. I doubt anyone that doesn’t have at least a passing interest in probability is going to have heard of the Monty Hall problem, much less buy the book.

    I was reminded while reading through it and ‘double checking’ your conclusions of my high school and Uni mathematics courses, and I’m pretty sure that virtually any science graduate has enough math to follow you without necessarily having to be a math major (I was computer science myself). Can’t really judge whether or not it’s accessible to people that left mathematics behind at high school, but your examples seemed clear enough to me. Frankly I almost wish your next book was going to be something similar – perhaps an examination of the Prisoner’s Dilemma or something – but I will of course read your evolution book happily.

  2. #2 Joe Shelby
    April 7, 2010

    I guess I’m increasingly having a problem with authors, publishers, or reviewers having to decide if a book is for the total expert or the total layman, as if there was no middle ground. In my upbringing, the whole *point* of a college education was to produce the person who was of exactly that middle ground: well read enough in a wide enough variety of subjects to follow along an intermediate book without worry, and able to quickly find a reference guide for a basics review on their own.

    I’ve “taught” myself more history, music theory, and science by reading articles, books and blogs written for precisely that educated but not expert audience. I intentionally used the “liberal studies” requirements at JMU for exactly that purpose.

    Robert Fripp often writes that the reviewer in reviewing a work is often reviewing themselves. This seems another echo of that sentiment: the reviewer assumes there isn’t that educated but not expert audience anymore.

    It is truly a sad day for Education itself if that is true.

  3. #3 Joe Shelby
    April 7, 2010

    [ack, sentence disappeared in my editing]

    I intentionally used the “liberal studies” requirements at JMU for exactly that purpose: to give myself enough of a framework in almost any subject to be able to follow along and continue to learn about it at my own pace and interest.

  4. #4 eric
    April 8, 2010

    Jason: Why surprisingly?

    Maybe he’s read your other publications. Ba da bing!

    Just kidding. Like Gazza and Joe, I had no problem dealing with the middle-ground nature of the mathematics. In each chapter you introduce the math needed for that chapter. I thought it was an effective (and self-evident) writing method. Its quite common, and I’m not sure why this reviewer would take issue with it.

  5. #5 Niall Anderson
    April 8, 2010

    David Spiegelhalter holds the Winton Chair of the Public Understanding of Risk, so I guess he has particular interest in the pedagogical aspects. Also, the problem may not have the same cultural resonance for us here in the UK, not having had the quiz show on TV (as far as I know). Anyway, a pretty positive review by the sound of it!

  6. #6 Collin
    April 8, 2010

    The book turned out just as I thought it would. Clear, concise writing that gave a great gist of the problem and enough math that I as able to skip several pages at a time, thereby making my reading even faster!

    Admittedly the math was a bit above my pay grade, but even without a total understanding a lot of it, the book made sense and was certainly a help in better understanding probabilities.

    I’ve enjoyed your blogging (even pre-sci blogs) and writing, keep up the good work.

  7. #7 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 8, 2010

    Collin –

    Thanks for the kind words. You make me feel bad that this has turned into SlackerBlog recently.

  8. #8 BathTu
    April 9, 2010

    Did you see that Scam School just did an episode on the MH problem?


  9. #9 Anonymous
    April 9, 2010

    Another review of your book appears in the recent issue (March 2010) of the European Mathematical Society Newsletter, which can be downloaded from this link (PDF file – 9 MB).

  10. #10 Jason Rosenhouse
    April 9, 2010

    Anonymous –

    Thank you for the link to the review in the European Mathematical Society Newsletter. I had not seen it before. I’m pleased that it is so positive.

    Bathub –

    Thanks for the link. I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, but it sounds interesting.

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