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Dealing with Doubt

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Texas Hold'em (David Singleton/CC-BY-2.0/Wikimedia Commons)

World Series of Poker Champion Annie Duke has made millions playing poker. Her trick? She’s found a way to put a number on what she can and cannot know. She tells us how we might take her math-minded ways away from the card table, and put them to use in the everyday gambles that steer life outside the casino.

Skip to the 6-minute mark to see the big hand between Annie and her brother Howard Lederer:

More on Pascal's wager

Comments [19]

Salem from Bloomington, IN

On Pascal's Wager...
For everyone else up in arms about the segment, Pascal was only considering the belief binary. That was his MO. Doesn't make him right.
If belief is all you have, and for people who believe in life-after-death, faith really is all you have to go on, then the odds do make sense. Again, doesn't make them right. It's a lot easier to live day-to-day believing in something, rather than nothing.

Unless you believe only in doubt--now there's a good follow-up episode!

The question is, If you were God, how would you not bet on yourself?

I don't know why so many people get so uptight about the facts here. This show is as much editorial as it is informative. I appreciate the work you're doing at radio lab and mental stimulation it encourages!

Feb. 08 2014 02:48 PM
Nick from London

Hi there!
Can anyone tell me the atmospheric/cinematic music that plays at 37 minutes in this episode over the poker moment of truth? I'm a little obsessed with it and have been playing just that section on hard rotation! Any information is appreciated.


PS I'm a long time listener and love the philosophical exhibitions that are the Radiolab podcasts. Keep up the good work!

Nov. 30 2013 07:06 PM
Keovar from Asheville, NC, USA

Catching up on old episodes, and you have got to be kidding me. Pascal's Wager? Seriously?
Pascal only came up with it to soothe the cognitive dissonance generated by holding what part of his mind realized was an irrational belief. People don't choose to believe or not, they just find a claim convincing or do not and they choose to be honest or not. Even if we could honestly choose, a supposedly omniscient being would see through such a self-serving and cynical motive. Maybe a god of randomness or greed would be impressed by a wager, but Yahweh/Jesus is only interested in sycophants serving him,not themselves. Christianity isn't even the only god possibility, either. If Odin and Thor are real, only glorious death in battle will get you into Valhalla. If this life is all you get, as the available evidence indicates, then you're gambling away the little time you've got worrying about the opinions of an imaginary friend. Evidence is the reasonable way to justify belief, and the default assumption is the null hypothesis because to start from an assumption of belief is to ask for confirmation bias errors.
The show does drift off into hazy-day postmodernist bunk at times, but I really thought you folks were smarter than this.

Oct. 04 2013 12:47 AM
Ian A from Australia

I think Radiolab have been beaten up enough about the silly comments made about Pascal's Wager in the podcast but for what it is worth, my god money is on Adud...wait, no Mixcoatl or yep definitley Kanghui!

(betting on gods aint like poker. It's like roulette, but with a wheel with thousands of numbers (gods) on it. Best bet is to put your money back in your pocket)

Apr. 24 2013 10:45 PM
Ian Firestone from Richmond, Virginia

The presentation of "Pascal's Wager" was one of egocentric logic. The choice of faith in "God or no God" is made based on personal reward versus truth. It's all about "what's in it for me?" The question of whether or not there is what we define as "God" is a question of fact, of probability, and of definition. Does the [and ought the] infinitesimal possibility of eternal gratification nullify the value of asking deep questions and making rational, responsible decisions? If the infinitesimal possibility of eternal gratification can come from somewhere other than God, then ought all otherwise faithful [or rational] beings then abandon God [or reason] for this next possibility? The only souls worthy of any God are those who love *truth* regardless of positive or negative outcomes.

Apr. 12 2013 02:52 AM
Guest Research Next Time?

This podcast was wickedly disappointing with regards to the choice of guests. As "Why Howard" already stated, Lederer wasn't just associated with Full Tilt - he was a high level executive and owner who funnelled hundreds of millions of (player) dollars out of the firm into his own pockets and those of his friends, mismanaging the company into the ground with FTP owing about 450 million to players worldwide when it went down. A simple google search of his name would have uncovered this. Annie is no angel herself - some reasearch on the Epic Poker League scandal would have been prudent (also a simple google search).

There are dozens of poker minds out there much better suited to speak to about poker as a math based skill game (Phil Galfond, Ike Haxton, Jason Mercier, even Daniel Negreanu) than the two chosen guests - just about anyone would have been a more appropriate choice.

Apr. 12 2013 12:41 AM

I greatly enjoyed hearing this show today. Interesting points, especially when Annie spoke.

Apr. 11 2013 08:11 PM
jack b

I'm not inclined to throw the baby out with the bathwater because of one bad episode (even when it's as thoroughly butchered as this one), but I sure hope this isn't RL "jumping the shark". It feels more like a "phone it in" episode. But it's so far below the standard set by the show, it seriously makes me concerned. But all good things come to an end...let's hope the hosts stave that off for many years to come.

Apr. 11 2013 01:40 AM
John from Indiana

Besides the obvious flaws with Pascal's wager, this episode also blatantly screwed up the discussion of the strategy of poker odds. The odds of getting a flush on the last card were (correctly) stated as about 20%. Then a situation with "pot odds" of 25% was set up. Then Jad says, "...if your pot odds are 25%, then all you really need to be is 25% sure that you have a good hand" and Robert finishes with "which you are, in the heart [flush] case". Er, no. Last time I checked, 20%<25%. And of course then you also have to include the odds that any of the other players finishes with a better hand than your flush

Apr. 07 2013 04:59 AM
Zack Fish from Glendale, CA

I know that it sounds more dramatic, that it sounds better for the purposes of a story, to claim that Pascal was in the throes of religious doubt when he conceived his "wager" argument to show that belief in God is the rational choice to make. But it's not true.

Pascal underwent an intense personal episode in which, he believed, he was in God's presence, and that God directly spoke to him. For the rest of his short life, he devoted himself fully to his faith. His wager argument, written well after his conversion, had nothing to do with his own personal experiences or his own faith; the purpose of the wager argument is merely to demonstrate that faith in God is rational even in the absence of sufficient proof or evidence.

Apr. 01 2013 04:41 PM

The characterization of the "Pascal's wager" argument as fundamental to Pascal's own belief in God is highly inaccurate. Scholars of Pascal generally consider the "wager" fragment (the so-called "Pensées" of Pascal are a posthumous [1670] collection of fragments and found papers) as an independent argument intended for a specific readership of gamblers close to the Duc de Roannez, written prior to Pascal's later goal (for which most of the fragments are intended) to write an "Apology for the Christian Religion". When one reads Pascal's "Pensées", one discovers the author providing (what he considered) many and varied proofs for the Christian religion, none of which rely on the probabilistic principles of the "wager". The initial Jansénist editors of Port-Royal, in their edition of the "Pensées", preceded the "wager" fragment with a notice indicating it was intended for those people who, neither sharing belief in religion nor convinced by the arguments of the atheists, saw themselves hesitating between both options; according to this notice, the argument was designed to convince them by their own rational beliefs to at least make certain concessions (giving up worldly things, etc.) while waiting for divine guidance.

Mar. 30 2013 01:36 PM
Why Howard?

As a philosophy major and a low level professional poker player here, I don't think anyone could have possibly been more offended by that segment than I was.

Your treatment of Pascal's Wager has been discussed at lengths by others, so let me try to explain what you did here by putting Howard Lederer on your show as one of your poker experts.

That was pretty much the equivalent of doing a story on how to succeed in business and then bringing in your expert: Bernie Madoff.

Did you research this at all? There are literally thousands of uncontroversial professionals you could have put on your show and you landed on the most despised man in our community.

This guy ran a company that defrauded me personally out of over $35,000 and you put him on your program and laugh with him about what a great poker player he is. Can you imagine what that feels like?

Mar. 29 2013 10:22 PM

Came here to say what a lot of people are saying in the comments about Pascel's wager. I was dismayed that this was presented like a solid argument in favor of believing in a Christian religion. The holes are many and not even worth pointing out in this post since a simple internet search would yield much information. However, the most glaringly obvious problem is that this logic assumes Christianity is the only religion. Once you consider all the other world religions and beliefs systems, then by the same logic, you should be believing strongly in all of them.

Even my 10 year old daughter pointed out a logical flaw. The argument doesn't take into account the possibility that belief in God send you to hell and non-belief sends you to heaven. Why shouldn't you shield yourself against that probability also by using the same logic.

Mar. 29 2013 09:10 AM
Jeremy from Sacramento, CA

Wow... I normally love this show but I am unbelievably disappointed in how you dealt with Pascal's Wager. You presented it as if it were a valid reason/argument to support God's existence when it is complete garbage for many many many reasons.

Mar. 28 2013 01:58 PM
Sean from Idaho

Oh, sorry to post twice, but I thought of another issue I wanted to point out. Pot odds are only meaningful when you have multiple shots, and can average away your losses. In the example from the show of the poker hand with a 25% chance of winning but a $300 payoff for winning, the pot odds dictate that you should play, because even if you only win one in 4 hands, you break even. With the question of god, it doesn't matter what the payoff is compared to the odds of "winning", if you get it wrong, you have no chance to try again and break even. So pot odds are really meaningless in this case.

Mar. 27 2013 05:25 PM
Sean from Idaho

I won't rehash what other commenters have said regarding the issues with Pascal's Wager, except to say that I agree that too many of the basic problems with it were not even mentioned, and should have been. However, I would like to add a problem with the very premise, and that is that belief is a choice that can be made, based on the odds (or anything else). Rather, I assert that belief is something that happens in your brain more or less independent of conscious choice - i.e. you either believe in god or you do not, you cannot simply choose to believe in god because of the "pot odds" of the payoff. Consider: I am guessing that you do not believe that you can fly. Decide for just a few minutes that you will believe you CAN fly. Now go up on the roof of your building and jump off and fly away. Obviously, unless you have a serious physiological problem, you will not do it. You will not, because you know you will fall and be injured or even die. You do not really believe you can fly, and there is no way that you could simply "decide" to start believing it. You could certainly walk around telling people that you believe it, and maybe there are some things you could do to make it look as though you believe it, but when the rubber hits the road, you don't, and you can't change that just by deciding to. I assert that the same goes for any belief, including a belief in god, no matter what the pot odds are (and I agree with the previous commenters that they are not nearly so good as Pascal asserted they were).

Mar. 27 2013 05:15 PM

I am not a math wizz, but it was obvious to me that there was so much data left out for the odds of if there is a god....... you presented this as if there were only 2 postions, christian and atheist. You left out the many many other religions and the thousands of years of people believing in other beliefs. You also left out the postion that if the atheist is correct, and you have only one life and you made all your chooses made on a lie and you will never NEVER have a chance to live your life again. done. period. I think if you ran the numbers including all that data, you would come to a completely different conclusion...... just saying..... bad math and your program has lot alot of credibility for me and any think person...

Mar. 27 2013 02:22 PM

Re: Pascal's wager. Agreed. I see how it's roughly connected to the odds discussion but not mentioning the major criticisms might leave people confused (or tricked) by the idea. The criticism that was raised in the show does reveal it's a reason to believe in god that doesn't even convince believers, so that's nice.

Mar. 27 2013 02:01 PM

I'm surprised that you brought up Pascal's Wager without pointing out even the most basic criticisms of it. The pot odds aren't as good as you think when you realise that humanity has believed in thousands of gods, so it's not a binary choice. If you pick the wrong god, you're still going to hell. That's just one of many criticisms.

You can use Pascal's Wager to argue for the existence of any god, including one you made up 10 seconds ago. It's so intellectually bankrupt it's embarrassing.

This is a topic that has been so thoroughly covered that I am simply astonished that you didn't even bring up the criticisms covered on the wikipedia article you link to.

Mar. 27 2013 09:35 AM

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