Lessons from Math Puzzles

30 January 2016

You’ve all seen them by now, these math puzzles on LinkedIn and Facebook, and judging by their popularity a good many of you have responded and posted an answer to show your cleverness. I’m talking about the math puzzle-graphics that look something like this:

math puzzle

Math Puzzles

 

LinkedIn has long-been blighted by those math puzzles where you have to provide the missing answer.

Now, I grant you the instigator of these math puzzles used clever enough tactics to get you to respond: a deceptively simple puzzle, with a taunt that basically said, “You’re an idiot if you get this wrong”. And of course, like the masses in the fable, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, we don’t want to be an idiot, so we boldly and confidently answer, even if we are the 10,000th person to respond. It’s as though we think the world knows that we see the puzzle, and our failure to reply is silent confirmation that we are idiots… so we respond.

The other puzzle of this ilk looks more like this:

another math puzzle

More math puzzles

Interestingly, the debates on this style of puzzle get even more heated, as respondents turn to their exquisite recollection of their 8th grade algebra classes and call up their long-forgotten rules for orders of operation. Even though we all passed algebra, we still can’t seem to agree what the rules actually are, much less how to apply them.

So beyond the fact that the puzzle instigators ultimately got their way and attracted thousands of replies, we’ve all overlooked the real lesson of these annoyingly popular social media posts. The lesson is not that 75% of us are idiots, or that American mathematics education is in a state of shambles (it isn’t, but that’s another story), but rather that puzzle instigators are getting away with murder. Specifically, they are murdering the clarity and precision which mathematics generally provides to those of us who rely on it on a regular basis.

Mostly, the math purists don’t sully themselves by even responding to these posts, but once in a while one of them can’t resist and objects to the very premise of the first style of puzzle. You see, we’ve abused the language of mathematics even starting the so-called pattern: 9=72; 8=56, 7=42… After all, 9 does not equal 72, and 8 does not equal 56, etc. If the puzzle authors are trying to say, “If 9 leads to 72, and 8 leads to 56, what does 5 lead to?”, then there is a preferred way to express that in mathematical language.

The abomination of these puzzles is not that they are polluting social media space, nor that thousands of us have a need to respond, nor that some fraction of us can’t seem to get the right answer. The real travesty is the utter lack of clarity perpetuated by the creators of these puzzles.

There is a lesson for us in business. We are often guilty of the same lack of clarity, although English is typically the victim (if your mother tongue is French or Mandarin or anything else, you’ll have to speak up if the same assault takes place in your language). If our company policies, standards, by-laws, HR manuals, guidance documents, etc., are written as badly as these math puzzles are, whom can we blame if our employees ignore, violate, misunderstand, or otherwise deviate from them?

Let’s eradicate poor communication from our business practices. Let’s commit ourselves to clarity and faithful use of all languages. And let’s get these lousy math puzzles out of our social media spaces.

 

 

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