An Ode to Eldon Moritz

This week, Hot Lou shares with Mike a fun story — and effectively a dedication — of a very strange interaction with a very persistent man named Eldon Moritz.

Marilyn vos Savant

Eldon Moritz and Marilyn vos Savant

Eldon Moritz and Marilyn vos Savant

For over 3 decades, Marilyn vos Savant has written “Ask Marilyn“, a Sunday column in Parade magazine in which she solves puzzles, answers questions on various subjects, and triggers decades of debates between such readers as our host Hot Lou and a somewhat contemptuous Texas man named Eldon.

Savant also was listed as having the highest recorded IQ in the Guinness Book of Records. Sadly, Guinness has since retired the competitive category so we are at a loss to determine who is the “smartest” person on earth.  The host and co-host of the show are biased, but they are partial to thinking the creators of Dad Jokes Daily have unofficially earned the distinction.

And check out Episode “Should Getting 1000 Likes Take 60 Steps?” for more info on our fabulous sponsor.

The Boys Brainteaser

In her May 26, 1996 column, Marilyn claimed that if a woman has exactly two children, at least one of whom is a boy, there is only a 1/3 chance that both children are boys.  It’s counterintuitive because you’d expect that there’s a 50/50 chance.

Marilyn went on to discuss the same problem in four additional columns (12/1/96, 3/30/97, 7/27/97, & 10/19/97) because it is so counterintuitive and, frankly, because the problem was stated somewhat ambiguously and open to a bit of interpretation.

Enter Eldon Moritz

On July 27, 1997, Marilyn accepted a challenge from Eldon Moritz of Arlington, Texas:

“I will send $1000 to your favorite charity if you can prove me wrong. The chances of both the woman and the man having two boys are equal.”

In effort to prove her math, Marilyn ignored that it may have been phrased a bit vaguely, and instead invited readers to participate in a collection of data that simply demonstrated that her math was correct.

On October 19, 1997, Marilyn declared herself the winner.  Eldon had no opportunity to respond.  Marilyn told him he owed $1000 to the American Heart Association.

Eldon versus hotlou

Roughly a decade later, while it was on Lou’s mind, he wrote a program that proved Marilyn’s math correct.  He tracked down Eldon’s email address and sent him an explanation of the program along with the evidence.

Eldon’s response, received just a few hours after Lou’s email:

Marilyn is wrong.
I believe your program, but you make the same mistake she made:
“A woman has two children and at least one is a boy.”  That is a statement made about a woman. That’s not a statement made, then a woman found for whom the statement would be true.
Eldon Moritz

What followed was several exchanges over a few hours that evening that boiled down to the interpretation of the problem — ignoring the counter-intuitiveness of the problem that Marilyn was obviously trying to demonstrate. Eldon also forwarded a decade’s worth of messages he had sent to Marilyn over the years.  Plus, another one that he sent to Marilyn the day after Lou messaged him.

Then, 13 additional days of messages from Eldon followed, with no responses from Lou, until receiving this one:

You gave up easily. Hopefully you learned something. Were you trying to protect a position, or were you trying to learn the correct answer?
10 minutes later, Lou responds with a bit of hubris:
I didn’t give up.  I lost interest in your desperation.  Good luck with your futile cause, Eldon.



Futile cause? You wrote me, then paid absolutely no attention to my argument. Who’se futile?
This question has developed into a study of people. People who get on the naive side of a counter-intuitive question, then don’t wish to admit it.
When people write to me, such as you did, I can almost predict the outcome. I can almost guess how many emails you will do. I’ve heard all the arguments. People who wish to remain on the ignorant side make false statements. On this question I don’t have to make false statements, the truth is on my side. Why do you want to stay on the ignorant side? That’s the futility.
Eldon Moritz

Then, the last time Lou ever wrote to Eldon:

My lacking interest is a reflection on the strength of your argument and your powers of persuasion.


Eldon then sends a few weeks worth of messages and then on 12/13/07 sends this:

You’re under thirty, live in the Chicago area. Probably have some education. You should develop some intellectual curiosity.

Your pal anyway,

Eldon Moritz

Eldon sends a couple more messages, again with no responses, then sends this:

You wrote to me about that little puzzle. You paid no attention to my logic. You learned nothing.
Why did you write?
You want to stay a dumbass all your life?

On March 30, 2008:

I got an email on our question this week-end. It’s the first since you, so you can see I don’t spend much time on it anymore. I answered him and haven’t received an answer yet so don’t know much about him yet.
We left the ball in your court. We’ll leave the ball in his.
Maybe not. Maybe he’ll understand my argument. He doesn’t start out like he’s going to, but maybe.
Then, on April 2, 2008, Eldon writes with the subject line “Update on the new guy”:
Louis, I told you that another guy had written to me. I was suspicious of him but had minor hopes. 

I hoped wrong. He seems to be dumber than you.  He seems to understand nothing. You guys can’t be that dumb. I don’t know what you get out of acting so dumb.

Eldon went on to write to Lou again on 4/5/08, 4/14/08 (closing with “Or, just stay dumb and ignorant.”), and 4/17/08 (“You make me think you’re awful dumb. Eldon”).

RIP Eldon Moritz

The final email from Eldon arrived on 12/20/08 and was a simple forward of an email sent to someone else with references to a PhD who was “no longer a 1/3-er.”

After a while had passed after not hearing from Eldon, Lou googled him and found Eldon’s obituary (mirror).


2 Comments on “An Ode to Eldon Moritz”

  1. This guy was notorious on sci.math back in the day. He was completely obsessed with the question, and with “his argument” supposedly showing the answer is 1/2. He referred to himself as one of the world’s foremost authorities on this question. Much like the experience described, he would often reply to old messages on the subject, trying to keep the debate going long after everyone else had lost interest. Once he even went as far as turning up at Oklahoma state university unannounced, to argue with one of the professors who’d previously corresponded with him on sci.math over lunch. That was back in 2005.

    • Oh wow! That is an amazing story to add to one of the most bizarre ongoing events in my life. We really appreciate you sharing that! Thanks!

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