Thursday, February 4, 2016

[EM_20160204PBIE] “Hillarious” Mathematics of Politics?

Six coins are tossed to decide a result for either “C” or “S”.  Assuming that the coins are fair, and that the results of the tosses are independent, calculate the probability that all the tosses are in favour of “C”.

     Hot in recent news is the story of the purported six coin tosses that were needed to determine certain county delegates in the race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sandersin the state of Iowa.  All six coin tosses were in favour of Hillary Clinton, and the result is so improbable that some people said it was “hillarious”.
     How is the probability calculated?  This is an example of mathematics in real life events that has the potential to affect the United States of America, and the whole world (including Singapore).


     In order to make the calculation, we make two assumptions: 
          (1) that the coins were fair, and
          (2) that the coin toss results are independent.
     So, what does it mean that the coins are “fair”?  It means that the probability of getting a “heads” is the same as the probability of getting a “tails”, which means ½ for each.
     Coin toss results can be “heads” or “tails”.  These are examples of events.  An event is something that can happen or not happen, and we associate a probability with it.  The probability is a number that indicates how likely the event happens.  It is between  0  and  1  inclusive.  Zero probability means a practically impossible event.  A probability of  1  means a practically certain event.  [The reason for me using the word “practically” is technical, which I shall not discuss.]  If the events do not affect one another (i.e. in our case, the coin tosses are not affected by the other coin tosses) then the events are said to be independent.  If the events are independent, then we can simply multiply the individual probabilites together, as above.  If the events are dependent, the calculation would be more complicated.

     So are the coin toss results valid?  I do not know.  All I can say is: improbable does not mean impossible.  Mathematics cannot tell whether the above assumptions (1) and (2) are correct.  But at least I “lay all the cards on the table”, so that astute students of probability know the basis of these calculations.  It is up to you to decide, but at least you would have made a mathematically-informed decision.  There could be other twists to the story, which is beyond the scope of this article.  This is one of the reasons why you need to learn mathematics carefully and think critically, whether or not you would become a mathematician,engineer, teacher or have a mathematics-intensive career.

H08. Make suppositions
H10. Simplify the problem
H11. Solve part of the problem

Suitable Levels
GCE ‘O’ Level “Elementary” Mathematics (Number patterns, with algebra)
* other syllabuses that involve probability
* anybody in the whole wide world!

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