Math humor: the uses of fallacy

Here’s something hilarious I read by Paul Dunmore in A Random Walk Through Science.  It was originally published in The New Zealand Mathematics Magazine, 7, 15 (1970).

The Uses of Fallacy, by Paul V. Dunmore

In the last hundred years or so, mathematics has undergone a tremendous growth in size and complexity and subtlety. This growth has given rise to a demand for more flexible methods of proving theorems than the laborious, difficult, pedantic, “rigorous” methods previously in favor. This demand has been met by what is now a well-developed branch of mathematics known as Generalized Logic. I won’t develop the theory of Generalized Logic in detail, but I must introduce some necessary terms. In Classical Logic, a Theorem consists of a True Statement for which there exists a Classical Proof. In Generalized Logic, we relax both of these restrictions: a Generalized Theorem consists of a Statement for which there exists a Generalized Proof. I think that the meaning of these terms should be sufficiently clear without the need for elaborate definitions.

The applications of Generalized Proofs will be obvious. Professional authors of textbooks use them freely, especially when proving mathematical results in Physics texts. Teachers and lecturers find that the use of Generalized Proofs enables them to make complex ideas readily accessible to students at an elementary level (without the necessity for the tutor to understand them himself). Research workers in a hurry to claim propriety for a new result, or who lack the time and inclination to be pedantic, find Generalized Proofs useful in writing papers. In this application, Generalized Proofs have the further advantage that the result is not required to be true, thus eliminating a tiresome (and now superfluous) restriction on the growth of mathematics.

I want now to consider some of the proof techniques which Generalized Logic has made available. I will be concerned mostly with the ways in which these methods can be applied in lecture courses — they require only trivial modifications to be used in textbooks and research papers.

The reductio methods are particularly worthy of note. There are, as everyone knows, two reductio methods available: reductio ad nauseam and reductio ad erratum. Both methods begin in the same way: the mathematician denies the result he is trying to prove, and writes down all the consequences of this denial that he can think of. The methods are most effective if these consequences are written down at random, preferably in odd vacant corners of the blackboard.

Although the methods begin in the same way, their aims are completely different. In reductio ad nauseum, the lecturer’s aim is to get everyone in the class asleep and not taking notes. (The latter is a much stronger condition.) The lecturer then has only to clean the blackboard and announce, “Thus we arrive at a contradiction, and the result is established.” There is no need to shout this — it is the signal for which everyone’s subconscious has been waiting. The entire class will awaken, stretch, and decide to get the last part of the proof from someone else. If everyone had stopped taking notes, therefore, there is no “someone else,” and the result is established.

In reductio ad erratum the aim is more subtle. If the working is complicated and pointless enough, an error is bound to occur. The first few such mistakes may well be picked up by an alternative class, but sooner or later one will get through. For a while, this error will lie dormant, buried deep in the working, but eventually it will come to the surface and announce its presence by contradicting something which has gone before. The theorem is then proved.

It should be noted that in reductio ad erratum the lecturer need not be aware of this random error or of the use he has made of it. The best practitioners of this method can produce deep and subtle errors within two or three lines and surface them within minutes, all by an instinctive process of which they are never aware. The subconscious artistry displayed by a really virtuoso master to a connoisseur who knows what to look for can be breathtaking.

There is a whole class of methods which can be applied when a lecturer can get from is premises P to a statement A, and from another statement B to the desired conclusion C, but he cannot bridge the gap from A to B. A number of techniques are available to the aggressive lecturer in this emergency. He can write down A, and without any hesitation put “therefore B.” If the theorem is dull enough, it is unlikely that anyone will question the “therefore.” This is the method of Proof by Omission, and is remarkably easy to get away with — sorry, remarkably easy to apply with success.

Alternatively, there is the Proof by Misdirection, where some statement that looks rather like “A, therefore B” is proved. A good bet is to prove the converse “B, therefore A”: this will always satisfy a first-year class. The Proof by Misdirection has a countably infinite analogue, if the lecturer is not pressed for time, in the method of Proof by Convergent Irrelevancies.

Proof by Definition can sometimes be used: the lecturer defines a set S of whatever entities he is considering for which B is true, and announces that in the future he will be concerned only with members of S. Even an Honors class will probably take this at face value, without enquiring whether the set S might not be empty.

Proof by Assertion is unanswerable. If some vague waffle about why B is true does not satisfy the class, the lecturer simply says, “This point should be intuitively obvious. I’ve explained it as clearly as I can. If you still cannot see it, you will just have to think very carefully about it yourselves, and then you will see how trivial and obvious it is.”

The hallmark of Proof by Admission of Ignorance is the statement “None of the textbooks makes this point clear. The result is certainly true, but I don’t know why. We shall just have to accept it as it stands.” This otherwise satisfactory method has the potential disadvantage that somebody in the class may know why the result is true (or, worse, know why it is false) and be prepared to say so.

A Proof by Non-Existent Reference will silence all but the most determined troublemaker. “You will find a proof of this given in Copson on page 445,” which is in the middle of the index. An important variant of this technique can be used by lecturers in pairs. Dr. Jones assumes a result which Professor Smith will be proving later in the year — but Professor Smith, finding himself short of time, omits that theorem, since the class has already done it with Dr. Jones…

Proof by Physical reasoning provides uniqueness theorems for many difficult systems of differential equations, but it has other important applications besides. The cosine function for a triangle, for example, can be obtained by considering the equilibrium of a mechanical system. (Physicists then reverse the procedure, obtaining the conditions for equilibrium of the system from the cosine rule rather than from experiment.)

The ultimate and irrefutable standby, of course, is the self-explanatory technique of Proof by Assignment. In a textbook, this can be recognized by the typical expressions “It can readily be shown that…” or “We leave as a trivial exercise for the reader the proof that…” (The words “readily” and “trivial” are an essential part of the technique.)

An obvious and fruitful ploy when confronted with the difficult problem of showing that B follows from A is the Delayed Lemma. “We assert as a lemma, the proof of which we postpone…” This is by no means idle procrastination: there are two possible denouements. In the first place, the lemma may actually be proved later one, using the original theorem in the argument. This Proof by Circular Cross-Reference has an obvious inductive generalization to chains of three or more theorems, and some very elegant results arise when this chain of interdependent theorems become infinite.

The other possible fate of a Delayed Lemma is the Proof by Infinite Neglect, in which the lecture course terminates before the lemma has been proved. The lemma, and the theorem of which it is a part, will naturally be assumed without comment in future courses.

A very subtle method of proving a theorem is the Proof by Osmosis. Here the theorem is never stated, and no hint of its proof is given, but by then end of the course it is tacitly assumed to be known. The theorem floats about in the air during the entire course and the mechanism by which the class absorbs it is the well-known biological phenomenon of osmosis.

A method of proof which is regrettably little used in undergraduate mathematics is the Proof by Aesthetics: “This result is too beautiful to be false.” Physicists will be aware that Dirac uses this method to establish the validity of several of his theories, the evidence for which is otherwise fairly slender. His remark”It is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment” [1] has achieved certain fame.

I want to discuss finally the Proof by Oral Tradition. This method gives rise to the celebrated Folk Theorems, of which Fermat’s Last Theorem is an imperfect example. The classical type exists only as a footnote in a textbook, to the effect that it can be proved (see unpublished lecture notes of the late Professor Green) that… Reference to the late Professor Green’s lecture notes reveals that he had never actually seen a proof, but had been assured of its validity in a personal communication, since destroyed, from the great Sir Ernest White. If one could still track it back from here, one would find that Sir Ernest heard of it over coffee one morning from one of his research students, who had seen a proof of the result, in Swedish, in the first issue of a mathematical magazine which had never produced a second issue and is not available in the libraries. And so on. Not very surprisingly, it is common for the contents of a Folk Theorem to change dramatically as its history is investigated.

I have made no mention of Special Methods such as division by zero, taking the wrong square roots, manipulating divergent series, and so forth. These methods, while very powerful, are adequately described in the standard literature. Nor have I discussed the little-known Fundamental Theorem of All Mathematics, which states that every number is zero (and whose proof will give the interested reader many hours of enjoyment, and excellent practice in the use of the methods outlined above). However, it will have become apparent what riches there are in the study of Generalized Logic, and I appeal to Mathematics Departments to institute formal courses in this discipline. This should be done preferably at undergraduate level, so that those who go teaching with only a Bachelor’s degree should be familiar with the subject. It is certain that in the future nobody will be able to claim a mathematical education without a firm grounding in at least the practical applications of Generalized Logic.


[1] P. A. M. Dirac, “The evolution of the physicist’s picture of nature,” Scientific American, 1963, p 47.

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