By Tim Hayes
On a rainy weekday lunch period in May, my friend Ken sat across the cafeteria table in our high school as we talked about moving on to college and whatever came after that.
Ken liked math. He was good at it, and would go on to major in business and accounting. He said he loved how numbers always rang true. He enjoyed the predictability of solving a problem, knowing that the mathematics behind them stood unfaltering, unfailing, unalterable.
Me, on the other hand? I hated math with a passion that only a budding journalism major could muster. Yeah, the numbers always performed as programmed, blah, blah. To me, that’s what made math so loathsome. Where was the creativity? Where was the originality? The unpredictability? The subjectivity? The fun?
That’s why writing appealed to me – then and now. You get to make the rules. You get to tell the story. You get to enjoy the freedom, not locked into some rigid set of proofs and formulas.
With that in mind, when I came across a story online the other day, I immediately thought of Ken and how much he must be squirming. A posting* asked viewers to provide the answer to this algebra equation: 8 ÷ 2(2×2) = X
Harkening back to those cloudy memories of ninth-grade algebra, here’s how I would tackle this equation:
1) First, solve for anything in parentheses, so 2×2 equals 4.
2) Then multiply anything next to parentheses, so 2×4 equals 8.
3) 8 divided by 8 equals 1.
4) So X equals 1, right?
Well, not necessarily. At least not among younger people who learned math differently than us crusty old veterans. Some people will argue with their last breath that the correct answer to this equation is that X equals 16.
Yes, 16! Will someone please tell me what sort of a world we live in, where a simple algebra equation can be so hopelessly twisted out of shape this way? Where did we go wrong?
Turns out both answers are technically correct. It depends on the order in which one processes the various calculations, specifically whether you take the “8 ÷ 2” portion first, which gives you the answer of 16, or whether you take the “2(2×2)” first, which yields the answer of 1. Which is the only correct answer, if you ask me.
Putting my high school buddy Ken’s discomfort with this mathematical betrayal of order and balance aside, this brain teaser also demonstrates another, much larger, concern prevalent in our society today – the inability of people on opposing sides of an issue to look at the same set of facts and arrive at a common conclusion or understanding.
My fear is that as we move through the next year-and-a-half, this problem may only grow larger, deeper, more corrosive to the national spirit. When certain inflammatory statements get made, when actions get taken that cause visible pain and suffering, or when documented evidence of unethical or illegal conduct gets presented in plain view – yet a plurality of people see something completely antithetical to the facts – we have a heap of trouble on our hands.
And this applies to both sides of many issues. No one can claim purity of intent or clarity of viewpoint 100 percent of the time. But, dear God, we’d better try a lot harder.
Ken loved math because it never lied. It never skewed from the legacy of longstanding integrity. It always made pure, unadulterated sense. But just like that simple algebra equation has pitted amateur and professional mathematicians against each other – 1 or 16? Who knows? Both? – we must think harder about what is true today.
Because only when we can reason and make decisions based on a commonly shared platform of truth and facts, can our nation move forward with confidence, camaraderie, and courage. The only true way forward.
Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes