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Posted by on Oct 20, 2007 in Richard and Judy - and probability | 4 comments

Channel 4 phone in – another case

Re my previous post, Jeremy says the unfairness in the Channel 4 phone-in is:

“the company was withholding information such that the population thought they could win, when in fact they could not.In this way, they encouraged the population to become contestants and to spend money which they otherwise would not have done.”

This may be on the right lines. But consider this imaginary case:

A winner is to be picked at random from one million callers. The whittling down is in two stages. Stage one is: half the time the phones are being answered, those entries go straight in the bin. The remaining entries are then entered into a lottery from which the winner is picked.

Is this competition unfair? If the punters know how it generally works, certainly not.

But actually, is it unfair even if the punters don’t know how it works? What does it matter how the whittling down is done, as long as it’s not done in a way deliberately designed to favour certain previously identifiable contestants?

But if that is so, then, if the telephonists taking the entries that go straight in the bin know they are doing so, does that matter? I don’t see how it does, despite the fact that, were they to tell those phoning in they cannot win, those punters wouldn’t spend their money.


  1. You’re confusing several issues.One is, “Is it unfair if a competition does not follow its rules, but the participants don’t know about it.” Of course it is.Two, “Maybe the world is deterministic, so the winner was decided long in advance, and it doesn’t matter what anyone did, let alone the people running the competition.” True, but that’s the case whether or not the competition was fixed. So it’s irrelevant.Three:Epistemic probability is not probability. It is what you think the probability is (given the evidence). You might be wrong. What you think the probability is has no effect on what it actually is. Epistemic probability might be useful when we’re talking about atheism and agnosticism, or Pascal’s wager, but in the real world of this sort of competition, we can very easily work out what probabilities are.”I don’t see how it does, despite the fact that, were they to tell those phoning in they cannot win, those punters wouldn’t spend their money.” I find your objection rather difficult to get a handle on. Surely this is just it? If you enter a competition thinking you have a chance of winning, but actually don’t, isn’t that unfair? By any definition of unfair most people would agree with.

  2. Just trying to get a handle on it:All this guff about epistemic probability: Is it that you think unfairness doesn’t matter if people don’t know it’s unfair?((If so, private schools! Or should we remain agnostic about them?))

  3. Yes, but in your “straight to the bin” example, you STILL had the same odds of winning when you decided to pick up that phone, no matter how complicated the whittling-down process. (Quibbles about determinism here are, as Hugo points out, irrelevant).In fact, I actually think it would be unfair to expect the company to divulge the information once the caller has phoned in. I don’t see why, as a contestant, you should be permitted to suddenly pull your money out once it becomes apparent that you’ve been (fairly) eliminated. On the other hand, the R&J show was basically scamming a significant proportion of the population into believing that they had a chance of winning… when they had NO chance at all at the time they decided to commit their money. It is in the withholding of this information that I think the unfairness lies.

  4. A case where one throws out every other call doesn’t change the manner of the game; since one doesn’t have knowledge of whether the ticker is on an even or odd number, one cannot predict the proper moment to call. With this halving of registered calls, however, every call is still valid to the end of the competition.The unfairness in an early cutoff is that it changes the manner of the game. Rather than simply placing an entry, players are now in competition to get through before the cutoff. Not giving players this information cheats those who phone in after the cutoff out of their efforts.

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