A Journalistic Math Problem, Times Two

A piece in the current issue of Forbes entertainingly mocks journalists for their (our) inability to handle math. Most journalists, the piece charges, were “standing behind the door when quantitative skills were handed out” and “are babes in the woods when it comes to correlations or the basic laws of probability.” In a very clever example in the lead paragraph, the author of the piece pokes at New York Times columnist William Safire for an item over the summer in which he rattled off the odds of various individuals snagging the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2004. “What Safire doesn’t seem to realize is that odds translate into percentage probabilities (e.g., 4-1 means the guy has a 20% chance) and that his probabilities add up to 168%.”

Great point! The column has lots of other examples on the way to his closing lament—”If only the math majors could write”—but this one is the most impressive, in terms of showing off the quantitative prowess of the author.

And actually, it was even more impressive when John Allen Paulos made exactly the same point about Safire’s column back in July, mere days after it appeared. Paulos is famous for pointing out mathematical gaffes in the press and in American public discourse generally in a series of well-known books (including the best-seller Innumeracy and the excellent A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper) as well as scads of columns for publications from the New York Times to Forbes. (He teaches mathematics at Temple, so maybe you can guess what his major was.)

Now if the Forbes writer had been aware that Paulos had already crunched these exact numbers to make the same point, then surely he would have given credit for it, just to make it clear that he was showing off his research skills, not his quantitative ones. Probably just a coincidence. What are the odds, eh?