Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Sick of Viral Math

By Ilona Vashchyshyn and Egan J. Chernoff

Figure 1. The "fiendish test."
People love to argue, a fact that is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than on the internet. Case in point: The Dress. Some saw the dress in the infamous photo, which took the internet by storm in 2015, as clearly blue and black, while others saw, obviously, white and gold—and both sides felt it was their duty to (LOUDLY) proclaim their conviction to the world.

If there’s another thing people love, it’s hating mathematics. Maybe you’ve experienced this phenomenon firsthand: “Ugh, I haaaaate math. I can’t do it to save my life!” an acquaintance at a party happily chirps, rolling his eyes up to the ceiling after you admit that you are a mathematics major.

And yet, somewhat paradoxically, many of these same people eagerly engage with viral math problems on social media. Otherwise reasonable adults seem to forget their hatred of mathematics and argue vehemently about the answer to an arithmetic problem (“9-3÷⅓+1 is nine, not nineteen—you moron!”).

These problems, and the reactions to them, reveal several prevalent misunderstandings about mathematics. They suggest that, contrary to our prior assertion, people don’t really hate math. Yes, many may think that they can’t do math to save their life—but perhaps this is only because their school experiences shed little light on what mathematics really is and what doing mathematics really means.

A Case of Viral Math

To illustrate our point, we detail five prominent misconceptions about mathematics through the so-called fiendish test, shared by the Daily Mail’s Shivali Best on January 27, 2017 (“Can YOU solve this McDonald’s maths puzzle? Brainteaser that has left the internet baffled is harder than it looks,”

See figure 1 for our reproduction. We encourage you to work out the answer before reading on. But first, a warning from the puzzle’s creator: This problem is “only for geniuses” . . .

Myth 1. Math is just a bag of tricks.
You say the answer is 25? We will let a commenter respond: “Wow, just . . . wow. Pictures are too difficult for you? Tell me something. In the One burger plus chips 9 equation, how many individual packets of chips do you see? Look at the picture carefully, I know this is hard for the simple minded, but do count the number of individual packets of chips.”

Indeed, there is only one packet of French fries in the last equation, not two—a realization that may cause you to revise your answer. But even if you obtained the correct result, you may doubt your work, as the following commenter did: “15, I suppose, but there is always some little trick.”

This problem is thus more than an exercise in algebra. It confirms your long-held suspicion that mathematics is nothing but a bag of tricks designed by deceiving magicians, for the sole purpose of making you feel stupid. Or, as another commenter put it, “basically . . . mathematicians are [expletive]s.”

Myth 2. Math is memorizing a set of rules.
Maybe you caught the French fry trick, and you worked out the answer to be 60. In this case, “Congratulation, you failed preteen maths. Learn your order of operations. Multiply BEFORE addition.”

If BEDMAS (or BODMAS, BIDMAS, PEMDAS, or PEDMAS, depending on where you’re from) wasn’t carved into your brain in the fourth grade, you may have indeed forgotten that in an expression such as multiplication takes precedence over addition.

Although you used careful mathematical reasoning to determine the values of the variables in the first three expressions, carefully juggling several values in your head until you deposited them into the last equation, it was all for nothing, because math is not about reasoning: It’s about BEDMAS; FOIL; Why ask why? Just flip and multiply; . . . “Didn’t you learn ANYTHING at school???”

Myth 3. Math problems have only one right answer.
Perhaps you are entertaining the notion that there may, in fact, be multiple valid answers to this problem. “No, there aren’t. If you knew the basic rules of mathematics, you would know that answer can only be 15. Multiplication ALWAYS precedes addition. Period!” Math problems aren’t up for interpretation. Period. This isn’t art class.

But what if addition were to precede multiplication? For centuries mathematicians have bent the rules that were handed down to them to explore new worlds like complex numbers, non-Euclidean geometry, and fuzzy logic, but this is not for you to do. Mathematics is not about experimentation or asking questions. Definitions are to be copied and memorized, not negotiated, and rules are meant to be followed and enforced (IN ALL CAPS!!!, if necessary).

Myth 4. Being smart means solving problems quickly.
Did you set a timer when you started this problem? This commenter did: “This took me 15 seconds. If it took u longer, you have issues.”

If Mad Minute exercises in school have taught us anything, it’s that math is not about careful, slow, and reasoned deliberation. It’s about being fast—shooting your hand up in the air before all your classmates and being the first to loudly drop your pencil when you finish an exam. Indeed, the prelude to this problem warned us to “answer fast if you are a genius.”

Should you need to count on your fingers or scribble on a napkin, or if you wish to take some time to play and to explore, we regret to inform you that you are, certifiably, not a genius. Or, as another commenter declared, “if you don’t get this within seconds you’re a mathsmuppet—FACT.”

Myth 5. Math is not for you.
It shouldn’t be surprising that this problem took you so long to answer or that you got it wrong. After all, the puzzle warns us that “98 per cent fails.”

You do not question this unreasonably high statistic, because math is clearly an enterprise for prodigies and savants. Math is for Albert Einstein. Math is for Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting and Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. It certainly is not for you (and good riddance to it!). The headlines for other viral problems confirm your belief that math is a cold, inhuman instrument for categorizing and weeding out: “This maths riddle is baffling the internet . . . and only truly smart people are getting it right” (

Treating the Infection

These math puzzles and the comments that accompany them have hidden and not-so-hidden messages that distort a field that is, at its core, deeply playful and creative. Unfortunately, school mathematics often reinforces these misconceptions, providing students with few opportunities to play with ideas, question assumptions, and explore possibilities.

“If I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making. . . . I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done. . . . What a sad way to learn mathematics: to be a trained chimpanzee,” wrote Paul Lockhart in A Mathematician’s Lament (Bellevue Literary Press, 2002).

Hundreds of nearly identical drills later, a student may have memorized BEDMAS, but may have also learned to despise a beautiful subject that is the key to success in a variety of pursuits.

What kind of education might foster understanding, creativity, and appreciation of mathematics is a larger issue for another time. For now, a suggestion: Should a friend tag you on a viral problem because you are his token math person, politely disengage. Instead, share a link to Steven Strogatz’s series in the New York Times, to Evelyn Lamb’s blog in Scientific American, or to the work of another mathematician who shares the joy of his or her vocation. Maybe that mathematician is you.

Let’s shift the discourse around mathematics and reveal the beauty that many people have not had the privilege to see. And, if you tell two friends, who tell two more friends, who tell two more . . . the right message may just go viral.

Ilona Vashchyshyn, a high school math teacher in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, maintains that the dress is white and gold.

Egan Chernoff, associate professor of mathematics education at the University of Saskatchewan, insists that the dress is blue and black.

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