If Math Is Universal, Why Can’t It Answer a Stupid Facebook Problem?

The state of the universe.
March 12 2013 1:04 PM

What Is the Answer to That Stupid Math Problem on Facebook?

And why are people so riled up about it?

130312_SCI_FacebookMathQ

Screenshot courtesy of Facebook

Perhaps you’ve seen the problem on Facebook or another forum:

6 ÷ 2(1+2) = ?

It’s one of several similar math problems popping up on social networks recently. Perhaps you, too, thought, “Duh! That’s easy,” and then, as I did, became embroiled in an epically long comment thread while your blood pressure steadily rose because you could not possibly understand why the others doing this problem could not get the right answer.

Perhaps, if you’re a nerd like me, or you teach math as I do, you even fell asleep thinking about this problem, baffled and frustrated about why you were unable to convince intelligent, educated friends that your calculation of this deceptively simple problem was accurate.

So, did you get 1 or 9? We’ll get to the “correct” answer in a moment.

Advertisement

But first, why do we get so riled up about these problems? People don’t usually get into fistfights at the bar over arithmetic, but these math threads are spectacularly vitriolic. A couple of factors are at work in these math debates, according to Robert Glenn Howard, a social psychologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who specializes in Internet communication and folklore.

For one thing, the whole point of Facebook and other forums is to provide a place for discourse and debate. Yes, there are your cousin’s new-baby pictures, and the opportunity to stalk a crush, but really, people go to social sites to say stuff. And argue about it. “People are already primed to engage in pretty intense deliberations, and that can bleed over into the way they play games,” Howard says.

And that’s exactly what these problems are: games. “Humans have used riddles as a form of play since ancient times,” Howard says. “And sometimes people can get competitive and wrapped up in it.” People use puzzles to show off their smarts, make others feel subordinate, and enjoy telling the story of the game later (as I’m doing right now).

Of course, the fervor with which some people debate basic arithmetic may be a proxy: There’s less at stake in a math debate than a potentially friendship-ending political debate. Arguing over multiplication may even be a way to make a subtle political point, using others’ “wrong” answers to reinforce a broader worldview, such as that the United States has poor math education.

But why do the debates often go on so long? One reason is psychological, another mathematical.

Math is already a source of anxiety for many people, and adding an audience ups the ante. “When there’s an audience, your performance can change,” says Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. Emotional stress can overtake our limited reserves of “cognitive horsepower.” “Often people feel the most stressed when the audience is made up of people they know. It’s very painful to fall on your face in front of your friends and family.”

So people dig in, not realizing the other reason these debates drag on—a mathematical one. We are taught to think of math as an absolute discipline without ambiguity. To an extent, that’s true: Two plus two is always four. But while the math itself lacks ambiguity, the way we express that math requires a system of symbols—otherwise known as language. Consider how often people debate grammar. Math has syntax just as language does—with the same potential for ambiguities. And just as word-based riddles exploit the ambiguities of language, so do these math problems.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Technocracy
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.