The Obvious, Nerdy and Ridiculous Math Question

A twit of such banal obviousness caught a little attention for an unexpected reason:


I will die on this hill.

No, this wasn’t written by a third grader, but by an old lawyer. And the reason anyone noticed is because this silly childish equation has become either the center of controversy or, as Rendall argued, a strawman. The answer, as is often the case, depends on what you see and what you know. As with Rendall, the issue exploded after a math nerd gave an abstract math definition, followed by James Lindsay’s ridiculing it as post-modern math.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just a strawman, although there were some fun math nerd points to be made about it that were of remarkably little use to anyone other than math nerds. There was an entirely distinct thread of argument that was exactly as Lindsay, et al., proffered, bearing no connection to cutesy math abstractions, but instead saying exactly the worst possible thing.

Or to put it as simplistically as possible:

So no, dear math nerds with your sometimes silly and sometimes witty explanations for why 2+2 may not necessarily equal four, this isn’t about you, your pedantry or a strawman, but, a cultural problem, because aren’t there other ways of “knowing”? Why are calculations correct but intuitive reasoning less correct. Or as the Seattle Public School’s new math curriculum asked, who gets to say if an answer is right?

The obvious answer would be the math teacher, in the classroom setting, but the broader answer is that either math is accepted as an objective reality or not. Once one masters the basics, and demonstrates a sufficient mastery to move on to the abstractions, the joke of 2+2=5 sometimes is interesting, fun and great for making friends at parties. But as a means of teaching third graders how to do basic math so they can function in society, it’s unhelpful.

More to the point, this effort to recharacterize a basic equation as a representation of imperialism/colonization, or whatever woke words one prefers, bears no connection to the engineer who needs a value to the millionth place or rounded numbers, or even using a non-decimal system of math as used by the ancient Nacirema. Rather, this is an effort to manufacture a wedge to make wrong answers right, deny children the ability to learn and succeed and create a society were everyone gets to invent the math that works for them, where their math is a reflection of their lived experience.

This doesn’t work. This can’t work. Society can’t function if we each get to assign our own values to numbers so that whatever outcome we reach is right for us. A bridge won’t stand unless the calculations align. Planes won’t fly. And a black child’s future won’t be successful if they are told by their third-grade teacher that 2+2=5 is just as right as four.

For years, we’ve watched as words have been devalued to the point of meaninglessness by redefinition, or more precisely, untethering words from cognizable definitions such that when a person says a conclusory word, we have no clue what it means. When someone says they are “challenged,” are they blind, lame or autistic? Do you meet them at the door with a wheelchair or a seeing-eye dog? Some argue that it’s less stigmatizing to use vague words, and perhaps that’s true if there’s some stigma attached to being blind. But it still doesn’t tell you whether they need a wheelchair. Is the trade-off of potential stigma to the ability to move a good one?

Definitional entropy has been going on for years now, despite my best efforts to stop the slide down the slippery slope. But basic math is objective, one of the handful of things society possesses that can communicate a hard concept across all cultural lines. And to make this even more controversial, one that the poor, oppressed, marginalized and downtrodden of all races, genders and cultures, can manage to learn. Take this away from them, and from society, and replace it with woke gibberish and we’ve made a society where nobody’s right when everybody’s wrong. Don’t do this to children, to people.


This is a hill I will die on, not because I don’t get the math nerd arguments, but because any child in third grade who can’t correctly answer this equation is going to struggle to succeed. If you want them to achieve, don’t make up excuses for them to be right even when they’re wrong.

Teach them to be right. Do it for the children. Do it for the sake of people who drive across bridges, fly in planes and make change at the Dollar Store. And for the handful who later become Ph.D. mathematicians, let them enjoy the math nerd jokes all they want, long after they’ve mastered the basics.

37 thoughts on “The Obvious, Nerdy and Ridiculous Math Question

  1. DaveL

    and create a society were everyone gets to invent the math that works for them

    No, it’s about creating a society where the Woke Scolds get to invent the math that works for them, and everyone else must confess their privilege and genuflect.

    I’m quite at a level of understanding the “math nerd arguments”, and they are not really arguments that 2+2 is not 4, any more than the old prank phone call about your refrigerator running is a serious academic argument about self-propelled kitchen appliances. They’re playing on ambiguities of language, even the formalized language of mathematical scholarship, nothing more.

    1. SHG Post author

      As I wrote this post, I said to myself, “please, let people not criticize the math nerd positions in the comments, as that’s the least significant aspect of the three possibilities.”

      But I knew it was just a pipe dream, and I knew I would end up regretting it.

  2. John Regan

    Epistemology should be left to epistemologists. Immanuel Kant tried to solve this problem, and to some extent did, by distinguishing “pure” and “practical” reason. On the level of practical reason we do indeed know that 2+2=4. In practical reason we also know what “justice” is, though of course not as precisely. But that’s one of our long standing disagreements. Hope you’re well!

  3. John J

    “‘Who is Smart? Who is not Smart?” Smart knows that 2+2=4 in all but exotic cases. Not Smart doesn’t know what 2+2 equals. Pseudo Smart was brainwashed at college and thinks that the standard correct answer indicates a belief in white supremacy. A vision of the future: 3 million pseudo Smarts controlling 300 million not Smarts. I think I prefer the boot stamping on the face forever.

    1. Jeff

      I’ve seen that future, it ends with buildings Bungie corded to one another to prevent collapse and hospitals with slot machines for free health care. Not a huge step from where we’re already headed

  4. George P Purcell Jr

    I’ve seen all the supposed arguments against 2+2=4. As far as I can tell:

    1) They redefine integer 2 as something else;
    2) They redefine the “+” operator as something else;
    3) They redefined the “=” expression as something else; or
    4) They use a different base notation that has different symbols but where x(Base n) = 4 if you convert.

    It’s utterly depressing.

    1. SHG Post author

      All the math nerd arguments involve redefining the values or symbols to mean something other than what they facially mean, rendering their rationales immaterial to the question. But they’re math nerds, so what else would you expect them to do with their time? It’s not as if they get invited to fun parties.

      1. Ned Freed

        Former math prawf here. Math nerds have plenty of fun; if by “fun” you mean groups consuming large quantities of alcohol. Usually cheap beer. And no party required.

        You are of course correct that these are nothing but notational games, but there’s one additional point that may be worth making: Math nerds do love to screw around with notation, and even have fights about what’s the best notation for sometihng*, but nobody does this without first describing the notational changes they have made. In detail.

        So I don’t write, say, 2+2=0 without first saying something like, “Digits here are nimbers, not numbers, and the operator is over Conway’s field.” (As a math nerd I felt it necessary to use an example I hadn’t seen anyone else use.)

        To put it more succinctly, the claim that it’s OK in “higher math” to say “2+2=5” without any additional context is nothing but disingenuous BS. Try that in your next math paper and I guarantee the reviewers will be less than kind.

        * As the saying goes, the lower the stakes, the more vicious the fighting. I once was told by a reviewer that my use of wavelength rather than wave number on the axis of a graph was a terrible error, and I was a terrible person for having made it.

        1. SHG Post author

          I lived with a math nerd in Ithaca many years ago. He used to tell me the math gags that broke him up. Sometimes, they were humorous. Then we drank to excess, so I get it.

          1. Ned Freed

            Could have been worse – it could have been an economist. The sort who thinks calling their parties “liquidity preference functions” is a howler.

    2. John V. Burger

      Your points are well-taken but Orwell was not thinking in terms of mathematical abstractions, or base numbering systems, or other algebraic expressions. It also had nothing to do with critical race theory or the future of women’s studies. Orwell was talking about the power of the state to force a people to believe non-truths, or accept non-truths as truth. That way the state could redefine war as peace, love as war, and freedom is slavery. If the state controls words and their definitions, then the state can control thought. If the state controls thought, then the people can be controlled.

      We see this with the “defund the police” movement. “Defund” means “to prevent from receiving money (funds).” When the Left issued the demands in the spring and early summer, most people scratched their heads and wondered, “Hmmmm . . . if we don’t pay the police, who will protect society from bad things?” Most thought that was a bad idea. So, the Left shifted its definition from taking money away from police to “reallocating funding” (but not “redistribution of funding” because that sounded way too Karl Marxy). They said, “well, sure, police will still get some cash but we can use ‘some’of that money (meaning a large part of their budgets) for social programs to address root causes of crime and injustice. The “some” term was not defined but many people thought that wasn’t a bad idea because who wants to see bad cops kneeling on the necks of black people, aside from racists and haters? Then, Di Blasio said he was going to reallocate $1 billion from the NYPD budget and LA Mayor Garcetti moved to reallocate $150,000,000 from the LAPD budget. They didn’t defund they just reprioritized where money went.

      Oh, and that absolutely did not have an impact on crime. No. Because those are “future” budget items. The police departments didn’t suffer in the current fiscal year and would be criminals didn’t see these movements as reallocation of law enforcement priorities. Would be criminal all know that the police will still enforce and/or arrest law violators, especially stupid pro-life activists who write “black babies’ lives matter” in chalk in front of “family planning” clinics. That did not send a message that laws would not be enforced. Nor did the en masse announcements that police officers of retirement age had submitted applications to be reallocated or redirected to the private sector.

      See how that works? Orwell was on to something.

      I love Big Brother.


  5. Hal

    I can’t help but thinking of the accountant who’s asked in a job interview “What does two plus two equal?” and responded “What to you want it to equal?”.

    He got the job.

    BTW, “Two is loneliest number since the number one”.

  6. B. McLeod

    No doubt we will have to increasingly accommodate cultural reassessments of what any number of things equal. It is going to be very rough trying to get to viable designs of aircraft and bridges and buildings once standard math is no more.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s been promiscuously quoted in the past. That said, it’s worth noting that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was an Oxford Don in mathematics.

  7. Anonymous Coward

    What’s really galling to me is the idea that math is “western and colonial “. These woke idiots casually dismiss all of the Arab and Asian foundations of math because they are blinded by their own racism and lust for power and destruction.

    1. LocoYokel

      I can recall many times I felt oppressed by a spreadsheet I was working on, who knew it was the evil white patriarchy indoctrinating me.

  8. Jack Holden

    This seems like an argument mostly about convention and complexity. While we’re using to base ten numeral system as we are the English language, and that convention is extremely important, its also valuable to understand that the world is more complex than that. In Roman numerals ii + ii = iv, in binary 10 + 10 = 100, and in German ‘gift’ means ‘poison’, any of which would be worthwhile things to learn in high school. In twenty years, I expect elementary school children will be familiar with binary and hexadecimal at which point the word ‘discriminate’ will only have the negative meaning. Abstractions and conventions shift over time and in different contexts and are not a sign of definitional entropy, moral degeneration, or the apocalypse.

    Also, your computer’s programming is based on binary, your houses electrical system is calculated using imaginary numbers, and the encryption systems you use for your internet connection are based on even weirder math. Math nerds built the modern world.

    Honestly you could consider sticking to legal topics. You seem pretty confused about math and linguistics.

      1. Jack Holden

        I’m pretty sure that a thousand years ago some goofball in Europe heard about these newfangled Arabic numerals and declared that ii + ii = iv is the hill he would die on.

        You’re right, Roman numerals aren’t relevant anymore. I just wasn’t sure if you would understand binary and hexadecimal.

        1. SHG Post author

          01011001 01101111 01110101 00100111 01110010 01100101 00100000 01110100 01101111 01101111 00100000 01101011 01101001 01101110 01100100 00100000 01110100 01101111 00100000 01110100 01101000 01101001 01110011 00100000 01100100 01110101 01101101 01100010 00100000 01101111 01101100 01100100 00100000 01101100 01100001 01110111 01111001 01100101 01110010 00101110

    1. Skink

      In my corner of the Swamp, there’s a homeless guy that I regularly see. Lately, I’ve felt some envy because he doesn’t have a bunch of stressful issues. Relatives don’t make themselves obnoxious by always needing stuff; he doesn’t have clients hanging from him like Christmas tree ornaments; and he isn’t responsible for keeping a bunch of employees and their families in the warm comfort of fabulousness.

      He gets some coffee in the morning and settles on a bench a little up the street from my office. He spends the day talking. Sometimes he talks to Mary, who ain’t there, informing her that she’s a bitch and can’t tell him what to do. But most of the talk is about how stuff should be. For him, stuff should be a whole lot different. His solutions make no sense and they come completely from what he thinks is rational, but it’s pretty clear a lot of the logical formulating comes from Mary.

      I envy his ability to spout and spew without any counter-point. He gets to create and be master because he is master. That no one would ever agree with his spouting and spewing matters not–he is right to him. It must be real groovalostic to always be the Swamp’s Infallible Wizard. That life might not be half-bad. Then again, he has to find a place to sleep.

      Got a place to sleep, Jack?

    2. Rengit

      A linguist’s favorite rhetorical trick: claim to reject prescriptivism and that he or she only subscribes to descriptive linguistics, state that “words and symbols change their meaning all the time”, then prescribe that you, the fool without a linguistics PhD, are wrong for caring or even having an opinion about the meaning of words. Because linguists are the only ones who get to talk about words with any authority.

  9. Rendall

    The notion that “objectivity” is a mere colonialist, white supremacist construction and therefore we should question the value of mathematics or good grammar is a dangerous idea to be fought at every turn.

    Lindsay’s refuting Carr’s mathematical arguments with “post-modernist critical theory has no place in mathematics” (sloganeered as “2+2=4 not 5”) is a true statement that nevertheless failed to address what Carr actually argued, which carried not a whiff of post-modernism. “2+2=4 not 5” as a mathematical statement is true, but as a slogan against the creeping infection of post-modern critical theory, it’s a strawman.

    My main objection to the Twitter kerfuffle however is the waves of the unduly passionate led by Lindsay, with whom I would otherwise agree, besieging Carr with “2+2=4 u diggenerate lol”. Seems rather unfair.

    Hey, thanks for the call-out. I can cross off my bucket list: getting a mention in Simple Justice. Thankfully, it was for a relatively benign reason!

    1. SHG Post author

      Some people, you for example, saw this as a Lindsay v. Carr issue. That had nothing to do with what I was (and am) talking about, but your insertion of your strawman twit was valuable to vet those who approved.

      Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.

      –Eleanor Roosevelt

      1. Rendall

        Fair point!

        So here is an idea: Post modernism is dangerous precisely because it upholds the belief that the correctness of competing philosophical and mathematical ideas are properly settled by battling mobs and tribalism; that reason and civility are mere colonialist oppression

        To be a true friend of rationality, an implacable enemy of post-modernism, and an example to us all, Lindsay could address Carr’s mathematical arguments with civility and intellectual humility. Thus is post-modernism defeated and Enlightenment championed.

        That’s not what’s happening, sadly. Instead, we have a slogan, and a mob shouting it at a poor slob, “proving” that 2+2=4

        (I sent a response before, but there was an error so I’m not sure it went through. Or if you held it back. Delete both, either, none, edit at will, I’m fine with any of it)

        1. SHG Post author

          You’re still stuck on a couple people. That’s fine, but that’s you. If you can’t stop obsessing over the people, maybe there’a subreddit where this discussion would be better appreciated than here, where it’s no more appreciated than your twit.

          1. Rendall

            Reddit will be open to the idea that intellectual humility champions Enlightenment values? You regard Reddit quite highly, it seems. I don’t think that idea is welcome many places at all

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