January 1st, 2016 by Dan Meyer
The New York Times looks at the dismal testimony of an “accident reconstructionist”:
The “expert witness” in this case would not answer questions without his “formula sheets,” which were computer models used to reconstruct accidents. When asked to back up his work with basic calculations, he deflected, repeatedly derailing the proceedings.
Watch the video. It’s well worth your time and I promise you’ll see it in somebody’s professional development or conference session soon. It offers so much to so many.
And then help us all understand what went wrong here. What’s your theory? Does your theory explain this catastrophe? Does it recommend a course of action? If you could go back in time and drop down next to this expert as he was learning how to make and analyze scale drawings, how would you intervene?
My own answer starts off the comments.
BTW. Can anyone help us understand how the expert came to the incorrect answer of 68 feet?
BTW. Hot fire:
The motorcyclist’s lawyer filed a counter-motion to refuse payment to the expert witness. It contained the math standards for Wichita middle schools.
[via Christopher D. Long]
2016 Jan 2. The post hit the top of Hacker News overnight.
2016 Jan 2. One of the Hacker News commenters notes that the actual deposition video is available on YouTube.
gasstationwithoutpumps offers one explanation of the error:
3 3/8″ at a 240:1 scale gives 67.5′ which rounds to 68′
It is easy to mix up 3/8″ and 3/16″, which is one reason I prefer doing measurements in metric units.
katenerdypoo offers another:
It’s quite possible he accidentally keyed in 6/16, which when multiplied by 20 gives 7.5, therefore giving 68 feet. This is also a reasonable error, since the 6 is directly above the 3 on the calculator.
Jo illustrates a fourth grader’s process of solving the scale problem.
Robert Kaplinsky chalks this up to pride:
Lastly, it’s worth noting that eventually the heated conversation shifts from the actual math to whether or not he will do it or can do it. At that point it seems to become a pride issue.
Alex blames those awful office calculators:
The reconstructionist is given an office calculator, which doesn’t even have brackets. He needs to enter a counter-intuitive sequence of “3/16+3” to even get the starting point. When I was at school I remember being aware that most people wouldn’t be able to handle that kind of mental contortion. They’d never been asked to.
So what’s the problem, and how might we solve it? Well, the man’s been given the wrong tool for the job. He’s never been asked to use the wrong tool before & so this throws him. This makes him defensive and he latches onto an excuse about formula sheets.
The motorcyclist’s lawyer is the unrelenting classroom didactic whose motivation is based on making his student look and feel stupid. I was waiting for Act 2 where the lawyer would jump up, grab his felt marker, and demonstrate just how easy he can show the procedure.
Interesting note: my grade 7 math class is in the middle of our unit on fractions, decimals, and percents, so I showed them this video so we could work on the problem. I thought they’d get a chuckle out of it and feel good about solving a problem that the expert on TV couldn’t solve.
Their reaction was unanimous. They identified with the guy and wanted them to give him his formula sheets. Some of them were pretty riled up about it!
They’re quite accustomed to me showing them videos and doing activities that are designed to build up their understanding that everyone approaches things differently, and we’ll all get there even if we take different paths. This guy wasn’t allowed to follow his path and do it his own way, and they were unfairly putting him on the spot and forcing him to do it their way.
It’s a rich problem, so I’ll use it again, but I think I’ll set it up and frame it a little differently next time!