Elementary My Dear

Those of us who attended traditional schools that actually taught basic math may recall that old and notorious nemesis; the “word problem.” In fact, almost no one who has been in a formal school in the last fifty to sixty years ever got by without coming across something similar to:

“If Sally has two apples and Tommy has four, how many apples do they have?”

Most of you, having long since passed basic math, know without thinking that the answer to this question is six. The question to that answer, however, is ‘why?’ Why do we assume without being told that Sally and Tommy are operating collectively and will pool their apples to achieve a greater total harvest? Let us suppose that Tommy and Sally are operating competitively, or even in isolation from one another, and therefore they each have what was stated in the preamble and no further calculation or speculation is required.

Let us change the question, superficially. If I were to ask you; “If Israel has 1000 rockets and Gaza has 900, how many do they have?” the more cynical among you would probably reply; “None, because they launched them all at each other.” Setting politics aside, that remark has important implications.

In situations we know are not real, our immediate impulse is to assume that two people with means will cooperate to achiever greater means than either has alone. However, in realistic or real-world situations, we assume, somewhat but not overly pessimistically, that the two people or groups will oppose one another in an attempt to control all the “apples.”

When and how do so many of us go from the bright-eyed first grader combining Sally and Tommy’s apples as though that were the natural order of things to the stoop-shouldered barfly shaking our heads morosely as the grim and grisly results of our unspoken lowest expectations play out before our very eyes on the TV in the back corner?

Ponder these things for a time, I bid you.

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