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Mathematics and Misinformation

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This post was written by Peter DeCraene, a 2021-22 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

Misinformation is not a new problem, and a set of newspaper articles from the early 20th century provides both a means to teach digital literacy and an opportunity to explore some mathematics.

Consider three articles, published in three different newspapers over the span of a few weeks.

Headline that reads Convict Declares He can Square Circle
Convict Declares He Can Square Circle

Headline reads Tenth Degree Equation, Kansas City Prisoner Makes a Discovery
Tenth Degree Equation, Kansas City Prisoner Makes a Discovery

Headline reads Convict seeking a pardon. Missouri prisoner claims to have made mathematical discoveries of great value.
Convict Seeking a Pardon

To activate their curiosity, present students with the three headlines, and ask them to observe, reflect on, and ask questions about these. Prompting questions might include: How do you think these stories might be similar based on the headlines? Different? Since they are all about the same person, what might the underlying story be?

Next, provide the complete newspaper stories to the students. Allow them time to read the articles, and possibly discuss with a partner:

  • What information is the same across all three articles?
  • What information in the articles lends credibility to Michael Angelo McGinnis’s accomplishments?
  • What information in the articles signals that there might be incorrect information here?

Students may not realize that newspapers shared (and continue to share) stories from one paper to the next, possibly editing the story for the regional audience or to fit into the space available. What clues in these stories indicate this type of sharing? Which story likely appeared first? In what ways is this practice similar to how information is spread today? How might the practice of sharing stories lead to the spread of misinformation?

The article does, in fact, contain misleading information about McGinnis’s mathematical discoveries. Students who have studied geometry might notice that McGinnis claimed to know the exact value of pi (π). Commonly rounded to 3.14, the decimal value of pi is actually infinitely long and, even with today’s computer capabilities, we cannot know “just what the ‘plus’ is” as McGinnis claimed. This may cause students to wonder about his other accomplishments.

Encourage students to engage in “lateral reading” by searching for other stories about Michael Angelo McGinnis and his discoveries. What information might they find about “tenth degree equations” which McGinnis claimed to have been able to solve? Another newspaper article – “Back from cell, Prison years pass quickly for Kansas college teacher” – quotes McGinnis, “I know I have proved Fermat’s theorem – the $25,000 prize is mine.” Students may wonder about Fermat’s theorem, and why a prize was offered.

Uncovering false information does not always require expert knowledge about a subject, and it is important for students to practice skills like lateral reading. The story of Michael Angelo McGinnis provides some practice with information literacy, as well as a jumping off point for some very interesting mathematics.

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Comments (3)

  1. Very good lesson! I used this in my Homeschool classroom. I believe the students learned a lot.

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