Monday, June 2, 2014

Are you smarter than a fourth (or fifth or sixth) grader?

PseudoUncle's Facebook Fiasco

My PseudoUncle Scott was killing time while his pregnant wife did one of the things pregnant women in their first trimesters do better than almost anyone else, which was to barf.  He clicked onto Facebook and was immediately faced with one of those numerical operations of which Facebook is so fond. People work the problems and argue viciously for weeks about the answers. 

The keys to the correct answers to these problems are almost exclusively tied to the concept of order of operations. Some operations take precedence over others. Once one has acknowledged the proper order in which things should be done and has taken care of those things, then one goes back to the left of the problem and works it from left to right.  The acronym I (along with about 20 million other fourth-graders) was taught was "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally," with P representing parentheses, E representing exponents, M representing multiplication, D representing division, a representing addition, and S representing subtraction.

No parentheses or exponents are present in this strand. Thus, if you work this equation correctly, you will first calculate 7 X 7, and will, we hope, arrive at 49. Next, you will divide 7 by 7 and arrive at 1. You will then work the problem in sequence from left to right, substituting "49" and "1" for the expressions " and  "7 x 7" and 7 / 7." At this point the equation looks like 7 + 1 + 49 -7. Your answer will be 50.

Not everyone will arrive at the correct answer because many of the people answering this question haven't done math more complicated than calculating a babysitter's rate of pay since he or she was in high school. This is almost to be expected.

The most amusing thing, though, is the vehemence with which those who answer incorrectly will either argue for the correctness of their answers or will insult others -- sometimes even those who have absolutely nothing to do with the problem presented -- or will defend their answers based upon their qualifications.  One lady answered  56 (which is the answer a person would've gotten from working the problem left to right in sequence without considering order of operations), then went on to say that those who got the incorrect answer did so because of the evil Common Core. I'm not 100% in favor of common core, but at least get the correct answer yourself before you insult all those who will get it wrong because they were taught by the principles of common core. Another guy who arrived at 56 said that we should trust him because he does math every day, and one always works the problem left to right in sequence. He may do math every day -- I have no way of knowing -- but he doesn't do it very well. There might be areas in which I would trust him, but not in regard to anything connected to math.  I could continue with silly responses, but I suspect you get the point.

The bottom line is probably "Who gives a a flying rat's rectum?" but sooner or later another one of these order of operations teasers will appear on Facebook, and people will argue about it again.  My suggestion to the people of Facebook, of which I am not one*, is to remember  "Please Excuse MDear Aunt Sally." You knew it once. You can learn it again. My advice to my PseudoUncle is to take up Sudoku or to play the piano while his pregnant wife is tossing her cookies.

* My mom has offered both my brother and me a sizable wad of cash to stay off Facebook until we turn 21.


  1. I'm terrible at math, but I would have gotten that problem right.

  2. Lots of people are not exceptionally good at MATH per se, but if we all remember the principles of ARITHMETIC, as you did, we'll be OK in life, at least in terms of our respective abilities to deal with numbers.

  3. You can't argue with stupid, or stubborn... and in most cases I think stubborn is worse.

  4. Stupid and stubborn are a horrible combination. I can deal with a reasonable degree of diminished capacity as long as the person whose capacity is diminished knows his limitations. That's probably why my brother and I get along.