Every once in a while I see a post go viral on social media with some headline like, This Math Problem has the Internet Stumped!!! And it’s always more or less the same problem with slight variation. But the reason the internet is stumped is not because the problem is difficult. Everyone is responding to the problem all matter-a-factly like they know the right answer. It usually looks something like this:
8 ÷ 2(2 + 2) = ?
Regardless of what you think the answer is and what I think the answer is, this is just a stupid problem. No self-respecting math person would present this math problem as is. Math is a tool to think about ideas and the world and is only useful to the extent that it clearly communicates those ideas. This problem doesn’t do that. If someone wrote this expecting someone to correctly solve it he or she probably isn’t a math person because any reasonable person would make it clear and totally unambiguous the order in which the operations should be done. But I don’t think that’s the case, these are probably written with the intention of confusing people and causing a fuss, which based on my reaction they obviously succeeded at (plus math problems outside of real-world context/ application I think are silly [though not necessarily unimportant]).
A lot of people grow up being afraid of math because it’s confusing and ambiguous, and stuff like this perpetuates that idea. In my opinion math is actually one of the most straightforward and logical disciplines, because we essentially made it. It’s a tool made for humans by humans. There’s a fundamental truth behind it that is kind of beautiful because at its core it requires no underlying assumption or beliefs, math just is. Numbers are just ideas, and the relationships between those ideas just are. No amount of time, or cultural evolution, or research can really change the basic principles of math.
Anyways there was another problem that went viral recently because a mom was asking for help on her second graders homework. It goes like this:
“There are 49 dogs signed up to compete in the dog show. There are 36 more small dogs than large dogs signed up to compete. How many small dogs are signed up to compete?”
This one is a little different because it does have a correct answer. The wording is pretty clear, and yet full grown adults, even some self-proclaimed teachers would confidently declare,”The answer is 36, it’s a trick question! Why is this even an issue!?!” That my friends is the issue right there. I think based on the fact that this is intended for second graders and on the context of the problem, people are primed to think that this problem is simpler than it is. I don’t blame them too much, but I think we all could benefit from slowing down every once in a while. As written the answer is 42.5 which doesn’t make sense based on presented situation, but that is the only correct answer. Yes it’s great to be part of the conversation and it’s great to share your thoughts, but let’s try to share quality thoughts, and maybe save us all some time and energy in the process.