That Vexing Math Equation? Here’s an Addition

That Vexing Math Equation? Here’s an Addition

Recently I wrote about a math equation that had managed to stir up a debate online. The equation was this one:

8 ÷ 2(2+2) = ?

The issue was that it generated two different answers, 16 or 1, depending on the order in which the mathematical operations were carried out. As youngsters, math students are drilled in a particular convention for the “order of operations,” which dictates the order thus: parentheses, exponents, multiplication and division (to be treated on equal footing, with ties broken by working from left to right), and addition and subtraction (likewise of equal priority, with ties similarly broken). Strict adherence to this elementary PEMDAS convention, I argued, leads to only one answer: 16.

Nonetheless, many readers (including my editor), equally adherent to what they regarded as the standard order of operations, strenuously insisted the right answer was 1. What was going on? After reading through the many comments on the article, I realized most of these respondents were using a different (and more sophisticated) convention than the elementary PEMDAS convention I had described in the article.

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In this more sophisticated convention, which is often used in algebra, implicit multiplication is given higher priority than explicit multiplication or explicit division, in which those operations are written explicitly with symbols like × * / or ÷. Under this more sophisticated convention, the implicit multiplication in 2(2 + 2) is given higher priority than the explicit division in 8÷2(2 + 2). In other words, 2(2+2) should be evaluated first. Doing so yields 8÷2(2 + 2) = 8÷8 = 1. By the same rule, many commenters argued that the expression 8÷2(4) was not synonymous with 8÷2×4, because the parentheses demanded immediate resolution, thus giving 8÷8 = 1 again.

This convention is very reasonable, and I agree that the answer is 1 if we adhere to it. But it is not universally adopted. The calculators built into Google and WolframAlpha use the more elementary convention; they make no distinction between implicit and explicit multiplication when instructed to evaluate simple arithmetic expressions.

Moreover, after Google and WolframAlpha evaluate whatever is inside a set of parentheses, they effectively delete the parentheses and no longer prioritize the contents. In particular, they interpret 8÷2(2 + 2) as 8÷2×(2 + 2) = 8÷2×(4), and treat this synonymously with 8÷2×4. Then, according to elementary PEMDAS, the division and multiplication have equal priority, so we work from left to right and obtain 8÷2×4 = 4×4 and arrive at an answer of 16. For my article, I chose to focus on this simpler convention.

Other commenters objected to the original question itself. Look at how poorly posed it was, they noted. It could have been made so much clearer if only another set of parentheses had been inserted in the right place, by writing it as (8 ÷ 2)(2+2) or 8 ÷ (2(2+2)).

True, but this misses the point: The question was not meant to ask anything clearly. Quite the contrary, its obscurity seems almost intentional. It is certainly artfully perverse, as if constructed to cause mischief.

The expression 8 ÷ 2(2+2) uses parentheses — typically a tool for reducing confusion — in a jujitsu manner to exacerbate the murkiness. It does this by juxtaposing the numeral 2 and the expression (2+2), signifying implicitly that they are meant to be multiplied, but without placing an explicit multiplication sign between them. The viewer is left wondering whether to use the sophisticated convention for implicit multiplication from algebra class or to fall back on the elementary PEMDAS convention from middle school.

A commenter named David neatly summed up the predicament in Reader Picks: “So the problem, as posed, mixes elementary school notation with high school notation in a way that doesn’t make sense. People who remember their elementary school math well say the answer is 16. People who remember their algebra are more likely to answer 1.”

Much as we might prefer a clear-cut answer to this question, there isn’t one. You say tomato, I say tomahto. Some spreadsheets and software systems flatly refuse to answer the question — they balk at its garbled structure. That’s my instinct, too, and that of most mathematicians I’ve spoken with. If you want a clearer answer, ask a clearer question.

Steven Strogatz is a professor of mathematics at Cornell and the author of “Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe.”

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