The Math Problem

What would you think of math if it was impossible to get the same answer from the exact same equation?

You probably wouldn’t take it seriously as a system.

How about this scenario:

In order to survive, everyone without exception, regardless of their math aptitude, has to solve a very intricate, complex math equation. Let’s toss in that some people may not even be given a pencil or piece of paper and must work out the equation entirely in their head.

If your life depended on getting the equation correct, how would you feel?

My guess is that people with high math aptitude probably wouldn’t be very intimidated, especially if they had pencil and paper.

People with math aptitude closer to average would probably have a high amount of stress regarding the situation, particularly if they didn’t have pencil and paper to help them figure the equation out.

People with math aptitude below average would probably become desperate on the verge of frantic. A mountain of pencil and paper wouldn’t matter to them. They may cheat or steal someone else’s answer, either by deception or force, anything to survive.

And last and, indeed, least, are the people with almost no math aptitude. I imagine that, for them, there would be just resigned acceptance that there was little they could do to change the outcome. Most probably wouldn’t even go through the act of attempting to solve the equation, they’d probably just fatalistically embrace their fate.

I won’t bother explaining the analogy. I’ll just make a few more points:

  • When a system suits your aptitudes, you are likely to agree that it’s rules are fair and just, particularly if it proves that you possess a rare skill set. It’s likely that succeeding in such a system will validate your feelings of superiority, especially if they come at the expense of others.
  • Conversely, if your aptitudes don’t mesh well with a system you are likely to reject it. For instance, you may not be great at math but a whiz at spelling. You may want a set of rules that suit your talents but would be satisfied with a set of rules that didn’t reward those with innately high math skills. You don’t know how it would happen but you just want a set of rules that suits everyone equally.

Both of the above positions are completely reasonable. However:

  • What if those who are gifted at math insist that the test is, indeed, “fair,” knowing that it favors their aptitude while disadvantaging others? What if they insist that those with less math aptitude just accept that the test is fair and it is simply a matter of getting better at math?
  • What if those with less math aptitude insist on a test that isn’t math based? What if they insist that the math whizzes agree to take an entirely new test that doesn’t allow them to leverage their natural talents?

It behooves those who benefit in the current test system to maintain it. However, what if they represented a group that was only 10% of the size of the total population? What happens if 90% of the people decide that, no matter what, they were no longer going to take the test and also completely outlaw math?

A smart math whiz may recommend lowering the stakes. Maybe, instead of putting everyone’s life on the line, everyone who solved the equation won an amazingly valuable prize but no one else actually suffered. Sure there might be jealousy and some would be angry that the game still favored the math whizzes but at least the penalty for not being good at math wouldn’t be so dire.

Some math whizzes may rebel at this idea because then there is less incentive to actually solve the equation. Some people, knowing that they won’t lose there lives if they don’t get the equation right, may not try their best to solve it. They may fear that lowering the stakes minimizes the value of the game.

Some of those who aren’t good at math may complain that the test still favors those with high math skills and their chances of winning the prize are low. They may ignore that, with the stakes lowered, it’s okay to not win now. They won’t suffer for not having great math skills. Not to mention that the prize is still amazingly valuable; developing great math skills could lead to amazing riches.

In this scenario, there is still competition but it is healthy competition. The math whizzes are still incentivized by the prize and those who are ambitious among those who are poor at math are incentivized to improve their math skills for a chance at winning the prize. Those without the math skills or the ambition are free to deal with the equation however they see fit. They can mostly self-select out without extreme penalty, which improves the odds of everyone else who is committed to winning the prize.

The end result is that people will either be satisfied with the test or not really care about it. What they likely won’t do is hate the test and be particularly motivated to change it.

Not for awhile at least.

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