Mistakes in Math

Published on Thursday, August 23, 2012 in , , ,

Eric Haddox' picture of the 2007 Guatemala sinkholeNaturally, everybody makes mistakes. In fact, it's an important part of the learning process.

People are especially quick to learn from mistakes that have large impact. If you ever wondered in school about the importance of doing the math right, today's post will show you many examples of what can happen when the math is done wrong.

When you're in school and, say, working through a word problem, and you make an error, the worst that happens is that you lose a few points on the assignment. Mathematical errors that happen in stories are often interesting and even amusing because they don't have any real world effect.

In Edgar Allan Poe's The Gold Bug, there's an error of trigonometry concerning the discovery of the treasure, but errors like this are easily ignored and don't effect enjoyment of the story. If you're not familiar with The Gold Bug story, there are many places you can read it or watch it online.

Math mistakes get much more serious when they affect our lives, however. The most common example happens in everyday shopping. Many retailers take advantage of consumers' inability to handle math on the stop by employing intentional math mistakes. Just last month, The Atlantic published an article about this called, “The 11 Ways That Consumers Are Hopeless at Math.” You'll probably recognize many of these approaches from personal experience.

Unintentional mistakes, as you're no doubt aware, can have a great cost in your personal or business life.

In the London Olympics, Tunisian weightlifter Khalil El Maoui was in second place after the first part of weightlifting competition. Unfortunately, because of a math error made by his coach, El Maoui wasn't present for the next part of the competition.

If you think affecting the outcome of a game for 1 person is bad, how about affecting the outcome for 14 people? That's just what happened back on April 30 of this year at the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. Their playing card supplier, Gemaco, had accidentally provided several unshuffled decks, even though they're supposed to provide shuffled decks. Naturally, the players recognized the patterns and took advantage of them to win. The game quickly went from a $10 per hand game to about $5,000 per hand. By the time the mistake was uncovered, the players had won a combined total of $1.5 million!

In this case, the original error wasn't mathematical itself, but the assumptions made on the part of the supplier and the casino did have a mathematical impact on the odds, and thus the outcome of the game. The decision by the casino to not allow many of the players to cash out their winnings may amplify the damage, should the general public see this as the casino being unfair.

The math mistake that are most likely to stick out in people's minds, however, are the ones that cost lives. The TV show Modern Marvels regularly features episodes about engineering disasters, and it's amazing how often the tiniest error can cause the most major disaster. Cracked.com also has an amazing collection of 6 of the smallest math errors, and their horrific consequences.

Many people don't care for studying math because of the relentless focus on precision. When you realize that math interprets and affects the real world, the need for that precision quickly becomes apparent.

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