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This Controversial Math Problem Has People Debating Basic Arithmetic – Can You Solve It?

The Internet is rife with riddles that have left many perplexed and debating the actual solution. Similarly, to the infamous blue and black dress that swept social media and even experts off their feet, a viral maths problem left workplaces and even experts scratching their heads.

A Twitter user posted a photograph in 2019 containing a math problem that has now become a topic of controversy. The problem in question is 8 ÷ 2(2 + 2), and it sparked a heated debate not only on Twitter but across various social media platforms.

The team of editors at Popular Mechanics, a magazine that covers lifestyle topics, found themselves at a stalemate when it came to a notorious mathematical problem. Seeking input from one another, they engaged in a lively discussion via their official workplace chat platform, carefully analyzing and interpreting the conundrum in an attempt to arrive at a definitive answer.

Order of operations

As per one of the editors, the commonly taught and practical method in elementary and high school utilized the well-known rule “PEMDAS,” which stands for “Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, and Subtraction. In this scenario, equations or problems ought to be solved in the order of the operations outlined by the acronym – starting with parentheses, then exponents, followed by multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction – progressing from left to right.

This implies that the arithmetic operation inside the 2 + 2 parentheses should be addressed first. Solving this would result in the value of 2, thus reducing the expression to 8 ÷ 2 x 4. According to Mashup Math, the next step in solving the equation is to prioritize the operation on the leftmost side, which is 8 ÷ 2. Despite multiplication typically having precedence over division, it should be solved first before proceeding to 2 x 4.

Performing the division operation would yield a quotient of 4, and multiplying it with 4 would give us a product of 16. However, it is worth noting that a significant number of individuals online, including math experts, tend to disagree with this approach.

On the other hand, the remaining Popular Mechanics editors asserted that the solution to the equation is 1. Their reasoning was also based on the “PEMDAS” rule, but their interpretation of the order of operations differed from the previous approach.

The editors who arrived at the answer of 1 concurred that the expression inside the parentheses, 2+2, should be evaluated first. However, they treated the sum as if it was inside its own set of parentheses, resulting in the expression 8 ÷ 2(4).

One editor specifically noted that, based on their math class, a multiplication operation enclosed in parentheses takes precedence over division, even if it is on the leftmost side of the equation.

Credits: DepositPhotos

The divisive equation sparked a widespread online debate, drawing the attention of mathematicians and scientists to weigh in. Mike Breen from the Public Awareness Office of the American Mathematical Society stated that, according to the order of operations, the correct answer is 16.

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A trick question?

However, he also acknowledged that the equation, as it is written, is inherently “ambiguous” in nature.

“In the field of mathematics, ambiguity often arises, and mathematicians strive to establish rules as accurately as possible. Following the strict order of operations, the answer is 16. However, I would not reprimand anyone who arrived at 1,” he explained.

Despite Breen’s definitive response, some individuals remain unconvinced. As a result, the other group of magazine editors enlisted the assistance of Rhett Allain, a physics professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, who they believed had ultimately resolved the issue.

“This is a matter of convention. Similar to spelling, there are standard practices on how to write and solve equations. However, various conventions exist, and people may have different interpretations. It’s like how some spell ‘gray’ as ‘grey,’ but we still comprehend the intended meaning,” he clarified.

According to Allain, the equation should have been written as 8/(2*(2+2)) to avoid ambiguity, and the result would be 1.


Jessica is a published author and copywriter specializing in personal and investment finance. Her expertise is in financial product reviews and stock market education.