the Sweet Smell of Burning Fur (plonq) wrote,
the Sweet Smell of Burning Fur


If you are on Facebook, you have probably seen a variation on this one (the numbers change, but the principle is the same).

"90% of people will get this wrong!!!!


Give your answer in the comments, then like this and share it with your friends!!!!"

Usually they show up in my feed when a friend has responded, and by that time they will have more than 200K likes, and almost as many comments. Even though I already know what to expect, I usually glance at the first few pages of comments to see if people have somehow become smarter since the last time, but the results seldom vary much from the last time it sneaked into my feed.

There will generally be a mix of answers, with slightly more people choosing 0 over those that choose 12. There is also the statistically small number of people whose answer seems to have been arrived at through some combination of augury or guessing, but they might just as easily be trolls as not.

What's more perplexing than people getting the answer wrong is the people who try to argue in defence of their wrong answers.

The answer is 0. No amount of arguing nor defending one's position will change that; it is a fundamental rule of maths. When I was in school, we were taught it as BODMAS (though I sometimes see it as BEDMAS -- which I think makes a bit more sense).

BODMAS/BEDMAS -- Brackets, Order/Exponent, Division, Multiplication, Addition and Subtraction.

All good, right? Possible not, because some are taught it as BEMDAS. If you take that literally then

6/2x3 = 1, rather than 9. It is a case of people knowing just enough of the truth to be confused. They know something without actually understanding it.

The answer is 9. In spite of people arguing otherwise on Facebook, it is not an answer that is up to interpretation; it is a rule of maths.

When people can't grasp one of the first simple rules we are taught in school, or know just enough of it to get it wrong, it is small wonder why we have so much confusion and friction on more nuanced issues like immunizations, or global climate change.

In the case of the latter, I hear too many people preface their thoughts with, "I'm no climatologist but..." Usually the argument is that humans are incapable of producing large enough effects to affect the entire global climate, or that global climate change is cyclic anyway (as evidenced by the ice ages), and that any statistical correlation between human actions and climate shift are purely coincidental.

Some even cite the fact that there are accredited scientists who disagree with the current climate change models. This is true, though I cannot think of any who are actually part of the field of study that they are questioning. One of the more prominent accredited critics, for instance, is a mathematician. When people point to these critics, it is a pretty clear case of argumentum ad verecundiam. Just because somebody is educated does not mean that they are experts in every other field.

I have little doubt that the same people who will side with a mathematician who questions the models covering the health of our planet would go to those same experts on matters of their own health.

"Now my doctorate is in Maths rather than Medicine, but looking at this scan I can see that the foreign mass in your brain is less than .1% of your total body mass. Statistically speaking, you are cancer free!"

Are all of these climatologists wrong? It's possible - however remotely at this point - that they might be wrong. Unlike the rules of arithmetic, there is a certain amount of experience-based interpretation that needs to be applied to the models they are using.

Do I accept their interpretation over yours?

Yes, for the same reason why I would go to see a real doctor about headaches and blurred vision than I would a professor of history. The professor might know a thing or two about historical remedies for such things, but I'd sooner see an expert in medicine to get a more accurate diagnosis.

The old lighthouse
Tags: maths
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