Monday, March 22, 2010

Miscellany: Counterintuitiveness

One of the fundamental joys of being human is the ability to understand (and thus accept) the counterintuitive.

Let's take a concrete, physical example. A few days ago, I saw a father teaching his four year-old daughter to ride a bike in the park. She was a bit wobbly, but she had at least started to get the bike moving tentatively forward. "Keep peddling, honey!" her dad shouted.

It's important to note that there were no bicycles around back when humans were making their way out of Africa. Everything about a bicycle, and the act of riding one, is completely artificial. At that moment, I bet every instinct in that girl's body told her to slow down, to freeze, to get her balance back on this unsteady piece of metal.

But that physical intuition is wrong, since the faster you pedal, the less likely you are to tip over. Why is that? Well, the answer is a little complicated. But suffice it to say that everyone knows, or rather, learns, that it's easier to balance on a bike that's in motion.

Some things are even more counter-intuitive - like the Monty Hall problem:

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