Today the Sacramento Kings and De’Aaron Fox invited everyone into their shared mind palace when they asked what the answer to this seemingly simple math equation. The result was chaos, and it nearly broke the Deadspin staff, although to be fair, basically any meaningless argument can break the Deadspin staff.
At first pass, to me, the answer is easy. It’s 1. The answer is 1. One plus two is three; three times two is six. Six divided by six is one. Bingo bango. I got a C in calculus in college, but I remember PEMDAS from elementary school. You know to deal with the parentheses first and then do all the other shit.
However, Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox mounted an impassioned argument that the answer is 9. He began with an explanation on what an exponent is—there are no exponents in this problem but whatever—then he used his Instagram story last night to address everyone who answered 1. Fox had over a dozen posts breaking down the order of operations for anyone still skeptical that the answer is 9.
By Fox’s reasoning, he’s right. 6/2 x 3 = 9.
However, if you write it like this ...
... the answer is 1. The correct answer doesn’t ultimately boil down to who can manipulate single-digit numbers or who has a snappier mnemonic for PEMDAS (a former staffer uses “Please Exhume My Dead Aunt Sally”). It really comes down to how you interpret the obelus, which is more ambiguous than a horizontal line or even a slash. It’s too obtuse and open for interpretation, which naturally means the Deadspin staff yelled about this bullshit for roughly an hour. We asked several teachers we knew, grilled all the brain geniuses we could find, and yelled about a lot more. Some said 9 and some said 1. Some flipped to 9 when presented with the argument for 9. We conducted a poll and could not agree.
This problem has gone viral several times on Facebook, and in 2013 Slate dug deep on the matter, ultimately concluding, “The bottom line is that ‘order of operations’ conventions are not universal truths in the same way that the sum of 2 and 2 is always 4.” There’s a similar problem that has also achieved notoriety, the ambiguity of which a Berkeley professor addressed as follows:
It is interesting that in the 48/2(9+3) problem, the last element was written 9+3 rather than 12. If the latter had been used, it would have been necessary to insert a multiplication sign, 48/2×12, and I would guess that a large majority of people would have then made the interpretation (48/2)×12. Perhaps we will never know where this puzzle originated; perhaps it was cunningly designed so that one interpretation would seem as likely as the other; or perhaps it came up as a real expression that someone happened to write down, not thinking of it as ambiguous, but that other people did have trouble with.
The truth of the matter is that this is not a math problem. It’s a poorly built riddle deliberately designed to be ambiguous and get dum-dums like the Deadspin staff to yell at each other. Even after all this nonsense, there is still truth everyone should be able to agree on: It’s the Sacramento Kings’ fault.