Did Safire Mean What He Wrote?

In his June 25 column in The New York Times, wordsmith William Safire estimated the odds against various prominent Democrats receiving the presidential nomination in 2004.

Specifically, he estimated the odds against Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt to be 4-1 and 15-1, respectively. The odds against Sens. Joe Biden, John Edwards, John Kerry, Pat Leahy, Chris Dodd and Russell Feingold he estimated to be 5-1, 9-1, 4-1, 6-1, 4-1, and 8-1, respectively.

And against Joe Lieberman and Al Gore, Safire estimated the odds to be 5-1 and 2-1, respectively.

Forget the political assessment and the economics of the betting scheme. What’s wrong mathematically with this assignment of odds?

Solution Is in the Numbers

Consider the 4-1 odds against Daschle. They mean he has one chance in five of receiving the nomination, or a 20 percent probability.

The 15-1 odds against Gephardt mean he has one chance in 16 of receiving the nomination, or a 6.25 percent probability.

Converting the odds against the other candidates to probabilities yields a total probability of 168 percent that one of these men will receive the nomination!

One can only wonder if, in fact, that’s really what the esteemed columnist intended to say.

Temple University mathematics Professor John Allen Paulos writes the Who's Counting? column for ABCNEWS.com. A new column appears on the first day of every month.