Does Math Make You Seem Smarter?

Often movies include scenes showing math. Often, the math is on a blackboard or whiteboard in a character’s room or office, or in the background of the credits roll at the end of the show. The intended effect is, I guess, to tell the audience “this character is a genius of some sort, he or she is going to provide the hero with some amazing invention or information that will help defeat the villain”.

As a mathematician, I try to quickly read the math on the whiteboard. Sometimes, it makes no sense – as if it’s just a scrawl of random letters. Other times it’s a collection of unrelated – but individually correct – mathematical statements. Rarely is it a typical mathematician’s whiteboard, showing a coherent set of ideas following one from the other.

(By the way, when I say “mathematician’s whiteboard” I don’t mean to imply that all mathematicians keep a whiteboad around the house. That stereotype is completely wrong. For example, I just sold my whiteboard, so I don’t have one.)

Still, it doesn’t matter too much, in a movie, if the math doesn’t make sense. Nobody cares that the physics in, say, 2012 or Armageddon doesn’t make sense. Admittedly, I was particularly disappointed by one show where the kids in a school formed a math club, and advertised it with a banner showing the digis of pi – but got the digits wrong.

Does math – even nonsense math – really make the characters in a movie look smarter?

According to new research, described here, math in a research paper makes the researcher look smarter. The researchers asked college research staff and students to evaluate some short descriptions of research in anthropology and sociology. They had insterted a nonsense math equation into some of the descriptions. The descriptions with the nonsense math were rated as better research than the descriptions with no math.

Importantly, the nonsense math did not boost the evaluations if the evalator was trained in a field such as mathematics, technology, science or medicine.

So perhaps you can impress your boss by adding an equation or two to your reports. Just make sure the equations make sense, or one day you’ll get caught!

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