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Percentages to odds
Wednesday, September 03, 2014 - by Frank Cotolo

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A few years back I had a serious health problem. A specialist highly advised that he perform a procedure that would eliminate a certain digestive problem. I asked him questions of every nature concerning having and not having the procedure done.

He said if I didn’t have it done, there was a 70-percent chance that a more serious condition would be ignited. I said, “That’s bad, that’s 2-5 I will become more sick.”

The doctor made a face. Then he said that if I had the procedure done there was a 20-percent chance that I would get another physical problem, often caused by the procedure that was a remedy for the main problem.

I pondered only for a moment and then said, “That’s only 4-1 that I will get the new problem, but the procedure working makes it 5-2 that I won’t become more sick.”

The doctor made another strange face; I gathered he had never heard anyone translate his predictions into odds.

Then I said, “If I don’t have the procedure and become more sick, what are the chances of death?” He told me that even with strict attention, the chances I could die from not having the procedure were around 90 percent.

There was hardly a beat between his death prediction and my calculating the odds line for the choices. Clearly, I had to have the procedure (5-2 it would work), even though it could provoke an entirely different malady (1-5 it would not cause further difficulties) because if I went on without facing those chances the odds of being dead soon were 1-10.

I opted for the procedure. The original health problem was solved; I did not get sick from the procedure and, obviously, I did not die.

It’s strange how professionals in other areas do not translate percentages to odds. My doctor thought it strange when it was only math. But using odds instead of strict percentages insinuated gambling and that still carries a strong negative feeling with it.

Think of it: You hear the weather reports every day and the weather person tells you about a 30-percent chance of rain, never does he or she say, “There’s a 5-2 chance of rain today.” Is it because using odds insinuates you may want to wager on the chances and, of course, that’s a bad, bad thing?

I handicap everything using odds, just as I did with my health problem. It is more precise and explains to me my chances of accomplishing everything. I will tell you more about this soon.

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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.