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Writers Cannot Do Math

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In "Super-Mathematics" it may be 32,000.
But in actual mathematics, it's 3,200.note 

"Up in the sky, the alien mother ship sent down twenty hundred troops, three in each space jet.
And if you want to know how many jets there were,
you can do the math yourself. I'm a very busy writer trying to make a movie here."
Calvin and Hobbes II: Lost at Sea (a Script Fic that imitates a movie)note 

You're watching a show or movie, or reading a book, when suddenly something numerical — like a date or a sum or a character's age — jumps out at you as being "off". Your brow furrows. What on earth? You start adding things up on your fingers to check. That wasn't right!

You have just discovered the fundamental truth: that your favorite author failed irredeemably at high school mathematics and never wants to see a number ever again except in the corner of a page.

This is a particular kind of continuity error that can come from multiple writers not checking with each other, or screwups in the timeline.

Frequently causes headaches for power scalers. "Power scaling" is the process of applying real world mathematics to things done by a character to establish some objective criteria for how they would fare in a fight against characters from other works (ie Goku can blow up planets with ease and can shrug off blows from people who could do the same. So it's probably safe to say he could beat Homer Simpson in a fight). However, often writers will have characters do things without thinking about how powerful someone would need to be to do this in real life, and accidentally making the character far more powerful than they ever intended.

Compare Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome, Not Allowed to Grow Up, and Longest Pregnancy Ever, where the writers can do math — they're just intentionally fudging it. See also Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale and Not Drawn to Scale. Possibly the root cause of Everybody Hates Mathematics. Might even involve E = MC Hammer. Artistic License – Statistics is a subtrope.

A natural habitat of the MST3K Mantra and Fan Wank, as in many cases these errors are not important to the plot (even when they are).

Oh, for the examples below that reference the number pi, it is an irrational number — composed of an endless sequence of digits, but the first 16 are 3.141592653589793.

Example subpages:

Other examples:

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    Comic Strips 
  • Dick Tracy:
    • The story "The Man of a Million Faces" features a string of bank robberies committed by celebrity lookalikes — or is it a single master of disguise? The story makes a big deal of using known heights of objects to measure (they mean "calculate") the perpetrator's height, which turns out to be a consistent 5'11". Yet a previous diagram shows a line labeled 69.9" (just shy of 5'10") going over his head with room to spare.
    • Another story involves thieves stealing small-valued coins from parking meters. Now, $2 in nickels is only 40 coins, far less than the large handful shown, whereas when Larry throws $20 in pennies onto his mother's stomach, the size of the bag pictured is about right, but that would seriously hurt.
  • For Better or for Worse: Due to the massive cast, some of the supporting cast’s ages got fudged up:
    • Gordon Mayes, who is a year older than Michael suddenly went from looking like a typical twenty something to more closer to the middle aged John and Elly, alongside his wife Tracey.
    • Jesse went from an elementary school aged boy to a teenager seemly overnight during Elizabeth’s time in Migwaki.
    • Francoise Caine was a toddler (later preschooler) but acted like she was in grade school.
    • Robin was a few months older than Francoise, but in contrast to her acting like a ten year old, he still acted like a baby.

  • MAD. The Ghostbusters parody, "Ghost-Dusters," (MAD #253) featured the characters explaining the $10,000 charge for capturing the parody's equivalent of Slimer. The individual prices actually totaled $11,000. A reader wrote in and the magazine had to admit its error.

  • The song/story "A Billion Baseballs" by the Green Chili Jam Band does multiple calculations related to these baseballs and gets almost all of them wrong. For example, it says that this many baseballs placed on the ground would take up a giant square "eighty miles around." Since baseballs are three-inch diameter objects, a square of 31,623 by 31,623 baseballs would have a perimeter of under six miles.
  • Foxy Brown's verse on The Firm's "Affirmative Action" contains this horrible bit of addition:
    We gotta flee to Panama, but wait it's half-and-half
    Keys is one and two-fifth, so how we flip
    Thirty-two grams raw, chop it in half, get sixteen, double it times three
    We got forty-eight, which mean a whole lot of cream
    Divide the profit by four, subtract it by eight
    We back to sixteen, now add the other two that 'Mega bringin' through
    So let's see, if we flip this other key
    Then that's more for me, mad coke and mad leak
    Plus a five hundred, cut in half is two-fifty
    Now triple that times three, we got three-quarters of another ki
  • The Rage Against the Machine track "Down Rodeo" includes the classic hook: So now I'm rollin' down Rodeo with a shotgun / These people ain't seen a brown-skinned man / since their grandparents bought one. Even if the song is describing a 1960s Black Panther, which the lyrics seem to suggest, that's over a century since the end of slavery, making it extremely unlikely that anyone there would have been old enough to see one purchased. That lyric is obviously not meant to be taken literally.
  • "The Doctor's Wife" by The Clockwork Quartet magnificently details an Apocalyptic Log by a doctor obsessed with curing his wife of a serious illness. The only trouble is, the dates at the beginning of each verse conform to no known calendar.
  • "Year 3000" by the Busted claims the narrator visited the titular year and "Your great-great-great granddaughter" is doing all right by that time. Assuming an average generation is 30 years, they're about 27 "greats" off note —she'd either be mummified or only kept alive as an AI by that point.
  • In the Vietnam War protest song "I Was Only 19" by Redgum is the line And Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon / God help him, he was going home in June which implies that Frankie was about to go home when he was killed by a mine. But the moon landing didn't happen until July - which would mean Frankie still had almost an entire year of service to go.
  • In the Spirit Of The West song "The Crawl", there are eight "good old boys" at the beginning of the pub crawl, but "half" of them are left behind along the way, resulting in only three of them making it to the end. Sometimes, in concert, they fixed this division error by having them start with six instead of eight.
  • deadmau5' 2010 album is titled 4x4=12. This was originally an in-joke from the livestreams he held with fans, where in the middle of describing his setup, he erroneously believed that to be the case, turning into a meme that he chose to ascend for his next album. He would also poke at this from the track "Maths" off his following album, > album title goes here <, which contains the lyrics "Four plus four plus four is twelve, twelve plus twelve plus twelve is four [...] Twelve plus twelve plus twelve is incorrect".

    Mythology & Religion 
  • The people of the northern Kingdom of Israel, who were scattered by the Assyrians and disappear from the historical record after that, are popularly known as the "Ten Lost Tribes." The only problem is that the Northern Kingdom consisted of only nine tribes — Reuben, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim, and Manasseh. The most likely explanation is that somebody subtracted the two tribes of the Southern Kingdom, Judah, and Benjamin, from the traditional twelve without realizing that the tribe of Simeon had disappeared from the census at this point; and the priestly tribe of Levi (which by law had no land holdings) was spread out through both kingdoms. The math was always a bit fuzzy anyway since Ephraim and Manasseh were actually half-tribes (being descended from Joseph's two sons) and the other tribes would sometimes kick Dan off the list for its wickedness (having slaughtered and resettled in a defenseless town in the Book of Judges).
  • In the Bible, a temple includes a sea (large bowl) of "cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it", implying that pi is equal to 3 and not 3.14159. However, the sea is also mentioned as being a "handbreadth" thick. Taking the thickness of the sea into account, the numbers match quite accurately. One might also note that ten and thirty are numbers with but one significant figure, and any computation using them is only good to one figure as well.
    • Near the end of the Book of Genesis, Jacob's descendants are listed and counted as they move to Egypt. They equal 70 souls in total... except that only 69 are named. The inconsistency is specifically with Leah's children, where 32 are listed but the narrative counts 33. One possible explanation: Levi's daughter Jochebednote  is the only grandchild of Jacob mentioned who was born after they arrive in Egypt. According to Jewish tradition, she makes the count because her mother was already pregnant with her when they traveled.
  • According to some sources, Iphigenia was twelve when the Trojan War started. The problem with this is her aunt Helen of Sparta was said to be twelve when Theseus abducted her near the end of his reign and according to Castor of Rhodes that ended in 1205 BC, meaning Helen and her siblings Clytemnestra (Iphigenia's mother), Castor and Polydeuces would have been born in 1217 BC. The traditional date for the beginning of the Trojan War was 1194 BC, putting Iphigenia's date of birth in 1206, a year before Theseus' abduction of Helen, which was before Helen was married to Menelaus and Clytemnestra was given to Agamemnon.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • Scott Steiner's infamous promo for a match against Samoa Joe and Kurt Angle in TNA:
    "You know they say all men are created equal, but you look at me and you look at Samoa Joe and you can see that statement is NOT TRUE! See, normally if you go one-on-one with another wrestler you got a fifty/fifty chance of winning. But I'm a genetic freak, and I'm not normal! So you got a 25 percent at best at beating me! And then you add Kurt Angle to the mix? You-the chances of winning drastically go down. See, the 3-Way at Sacrifice, you got a 33 and a third chance of winning. But I! I got a 66 and two-thirds chance of winning, cuz Kurt Angle KNOOOWS he can't beat me, and he's not even gonna try. So, Samoa Joe, you take your thirty-three and a third chance minus my twenty-five percent chance (if we was to go one on one) and you got an eight and a third chance of winning at Sacrifice. But then you take my 75 perchance-chance of winnin' (if we was to go one on one), and then add 66 and two thirds…percents, I got a 141 2/3 chance of winning at Sacrifice! Señor Joe? The numbers don't lie, and they spell disaster for you at Sacrifice!"
    • Astonishingly, perhaps, arithmetically Steiner's numbers do all add up. It's just that chance doesn't work like that.note 
  • January 4, 2010 was the beginning of TNA's failed attempt at a second Monday Night Wars against WWE Raw. That night, Raw drew a 3.6 rating and TNA Impact drew a 1.5. Vince Russo wrote on his blog:
    "The bottom line is- TNA WON. PERIOD."
  • WrestleMania:
    • When promoting the milestone that was WrestleMania XXV, WWE would insistently refer to the event as "The 25th Anniversary of WrestleMania" — forgetting that the number doesn't actually indicate how many years it's been since the first one. WrestleMania XXV wasn't actually the 25th anniversary of the first WrestleMania, it was the 24th. If you wanted to mark the 25-year anniversary of WrestleMania I, you had to wait until WrestleMania XXVI.
    • When The Undertaker was set to face Triple H at WrestleMania XXVII, they pretended that the two men had never wrestled before. 'Taker said that he had "beaten 19 men" at WrestleMania, which, even ignoring that one of those was Triple H himself, did not account for the fact he had faced Kane and Shawn Michaels twice each. In a promo before the second time he faced Michaels, the previous year, he had said "18 men have come..." — which did at least balance out up until then, as his two matches against Kane were countered by the fact that one of his other matches was a two-on-one handicap.

  • The Phantom of the Opera takes place in 1881. Its sequel, Love Never Dies, takes place ten years later, in 1907. Phantom itself has had its share of chronology issues — the dates of the prologue, the principal action, and the death of Christine's father have shifted several times since the show's inception, and trying to reconcile all three dates with each other has resulted in headaches for many a phan. A brief discussion on the subject can be found here.
  • The Pajama Game has a song named "Seven and a Half Cents" involving the singers detailing what they could buy with that raise over a given number of years. In each calculation, they multiply by two and a half hours of overtime instead of two and a quarter, resulting in the wrong answer every time.
  • Hairspray, the stage adaptation of the 1988 film of the same name, starts on a Monday in "early June", 1961. It ends on June 6th, 1961. However, around 10 days pass between the beginning and ending scenes. This problem is compounded by the fact that the first Monday in June 1961, was the 4th.
  • In Fiddler on the Roof after a Time Skip, Tevye says Tzeitel and Motel have been married for two months. A scene or two later (with no time skip), they have a baby. Either Tzeitel had the world's shortest pregnancy or she somehow had no full belly when she was seven months pregnant at her wedding.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory falls afoul of this in Act One with regards to Veruca Salt finding her Golden Ticket. In the "I Am" Song "When Veruca Says" her father claims that his workers were "shelling" Wonka Bars "for forty days and forty nights", but the contest was only announced the previous day. (Granted, it might have felt that way since they're dealing with Veruca Salt here.) This might be a matter of the book and the lyrics being penned by different writers.

  • BIONICLE has this across its multiple forms of media.
    • The size of the Great Spirit Robot was increased from its originally intended height (about a small-to-middle sized continent) to roughly the diameter of Earth without other measurements being changed accordingly. This means the Denmark-sized island that was supposed to be covering the fallen robot's head wouldn't have fit.
    • Practically all forms of media disregard any given measurements about the sizes and population numbers of cities or villages. In early media, the giant island Mata Nui had less than a hundred denizens living in tiny villages. When the series was adapted into movies, the number was boosted to several hundred for dramatic purposes with no in-universe justification. The second film, a prequel, not only showed but clearly stated that the true number was several thousand, yet offered no explanation for why thousands later became hundreds. The writers were actually aware of these discrepancies, but their retroactive solution was to cap off the population number at one thousand, plus a small group of leaders and protectors. This was arguably the worst solution, as it contradicted every single piece of prior media, along with common sense. Early media explicitly said many islanders have died over the ages, which could have given some excuse for the inconsistent numbers, but this plot point was retconned, effectively meaning that the writers deliberately made their math even worse.
    • Related to the population number madness, it was also stated that there were 5,000 Vahki police robots watching over the people, effectively meaning that there were five large, highly efficient enforcer units for every single meager worker, which in no way adds up. Takua was even considered a weirdo for being so reckless and lazy that he had an entire Vahki squad assigned to watch him, but with a ratio of 5 Vahki for every person, his predicament doesn't sound too strange at all.
    • Water began pouring into the massive cavern Karda Nui through an island-sized hole, which under a thousand years only managed to flood its bottom. While Karda Nui is a gigantic place and its sizes can only be guessed at by comparing different pieces of concept art, fans have calculated that even under the most lenient of circumstances, the place would have been filled with water in a matter of weeks.
    • The franchise had issues with time scaling too. Sometimes creatures or characters who were a couple thousand years old were considered ancient and among the oldest ever. Yet in other parts of the story, hundred thousand year olds were said to be "young" and inexperienced. At one point, The Shadowed One rapid-ages 3,000 years and becomes frail and decrepit. Later on he and practically everyone else is revealed to be 100,000 years old, so an added couple thousand should really be nothing. Characters routinely talk of thousand year old objects or events as belonging to ancient, forgotten times that are only recorded in legend, though realistically they should all clearly remember them as they were alive at the time.

    Visual Novels 
  • Narcissu and its sequel, Narcissu ~ Side 2nd, have trouble keeping Setsumi's age straight. In Side 2nd (which takes place during the summer of 1999), Setsumi is referred to as being an Aquarius (thus born in late January or February), and it is alternatively claimed that she is fifteen years old, or that it is her fifteenth summer (which would make her fourteen). The original game (taking place in late January and early February of 2005) claims that she is 22, but adding the years up from her claimed age in Side 2nd indicate that she should be within a month of either her 20th or 21st birthday, depending on whether one uses the "15th Summer" claim or the "15 years old" claim. Also, in the prologue of Side 2nd (which takes place between the two stories), Setsumi makes a remark about how she's been hospitalized on and off for a decade. The main story indicates that she was first hospitalized sometime in April 1997, thus making it impossible for the claim of a decade to be correct.
  • In Higurashi: When They Cry, Hinamizawa has a population of roughly 2000, yet there are only 20 pupils in the village's only school. Realistically, around one tenth of a population would be of school age. (The TIPS say that half the children in the village go to school in Okinomiya instead, which helps a little, but isn't nearly enough.)
  • Early into Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, Monokuma reveals that the students lost two years of their memories. If one, however, factors in all the cumulative time periods, the gap is likely around three and a half years. Explanation (spoilers) Somewhat justified, because giving the real time gap would spoil a major reveal too early into the game and later entries in the series indicate Monokuma is an Unreliable Expositor.
  • Some times in Ace Attorney don't match.
    • It's stated multiple times that Phoenix, Edgeworth and Larry all met and became friends in the fourth grade, which was fifteen years before the events of the first game, yet Larry's age is listed as 23 alongside Phoenix and Edgeworth's 24, which would require them to have met in third grade.
    • In the final case of Trials and Tribulations it is stated that Phoenix dated "Dollie" for 6 months, when it was actually close to 8 monthsDates. Corrected in later ports.
    • In Apollo Justice onward, most of the Phoenix Wright-era cast are a year younger than they should be, because of the botched handling of a time skip. To explain further, the trial of Shadi Enigmar happened seven years prior to the events of AJ. When calculating character ages, the writers counted from the start of T&T instead of the end of T&T. (Further confusing things, everything still takes place in the year it's supposed to - only the ages are wrong.)
    • Thalassa Gramarye, Apollo and Trucy's mother, is said in Apollo Justice to be 40, which doing the math means she had to have left the Troupe, gotten married and had Apollo at just 18. Given the lack of references to this in dialogue, combined with how old she looks in the photo taken before Apollo's birth, this is likely an error.
    • In the second case of Spirit of Justice, it's stated Athena doesn't know who Troupe Gramarye were because she was away overseas in Europe at the time they were active. Troupe Gramarye disbanded a full year and a half before the murder of Metis Cykes, and had been active years before then. What makes this strange is that Athena's incredibly sheltered upbringing is more than adequate an explanation for her not knowing about them, making the continuity error completely unnecessary.
  • The Zero Escape trilogy deals with a lot of science and math, both basic and advanced (mostly done by Akane), and most of the time it gets it right, but a few mistakes managed to slip in:
    • At one point in Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors Seven pulls up a theory that the ship they're on is RMS Gigantic (a real-life ship that was later renamed to HMHS Britannic), to which Santa reacts with "There is no way we're on a boat that's almost 100 years old". Gigantic was finished in 1914 and the game takes place in 2027, so if Gigantic still existed it would be over 100 years old. (The game was released before 2014; someone probably did the math for Present Day and forgot the game is actually 20 Minutes into the Future.)
    • Zero Time Dilemma:
      • If you fail to get the correct code in the pantry, Carlos will say that a 4 digit-code has "hundreds of thousands of possible combinations". No, it doesn't: it has exactly 10,000 combinations.
      • Akane claims there is over a thousand possible combinations for a 3-digit code when it's exactly one thousand combinations.

    Web Animation 
  • OverSimplified: In the video about Henry VIII, the narrator tells us that the famed English king is born 5 years after his older brother, Arthur. Immediately after this information, we are shown a scene where Henry VII tells a three-year-old Arthur about the Arraged Marriage the young prince is to have with Catherine of Aragon. A young Henry VIII shows up after the conversation between his father and older brother, even though he shouldn't have been born yet if Arthur is only three during the scene.

  • Averted in Schlock Mercenary here. The author even accounted for the equal amount of regular matter that would be converted to energy when taking 320 milligrams of anti-matter and converting to the equivalent explosion powered by TNT. (Quick link to the maths). Schlock's readers can do math as well: the writer infamously challenged them to, given a few distantly related numbers, calculate the height of the "Hellavator" lunar space elevator, only for several readers to send in accurate calculations and numbers, and show their work.
  • Angel Moxie: In-universe example. Grant accidentally fakes his birthdate as 1971, but the date of his teaching degree as 1983. Luckily, the only ones who notice are the heroines.
  • Roxanne From Hell: In a Q&A, Frank's age is given as 80-120ish. Later on, he describes himself as about nine times older than Romero, who is 19; making him about 171 years old.

    Web Original 
  • The Creepypasta story The Russian Sleep Experiment starts out with five Nazi prisoners and has three by the time they leave the facility, yet still manages to include death scenes for four or five after that.
  • In Farce of the Three Kingdoms, Cao Cao works out that the Ma family's ages make no sense. He is quite disturbed by this.
  • A common internet meme is to take some large amount of money being spent on something (say, $600 million), divide it by the number of people in the United States (at time of writing, a bit over 320 million), and claim it would be more practical to give everyone in the US a life-changing million dollars. But the people making these memes are either bad at math or hoping to mess with such people, as millions cancel when dividing. Dividing the original amount by the American population would actually give a not-so-life-changing couple of bucks per person, not a million.

    Web Videos 
  • The Nostalgia Critic, in his End of Days review, as part of a long string of math equations, infamously uttered that "9+9+9=21". That's about as basic of mathematics as one can get and he screwed it up. He later apologized for it in one of his "Fuck ups" specials.
  • Invoked humorously in the Monster Factory video "Recreating a Beloved Sitcom in The Sims 4"; Griffin says that the "squared" in the title of the sitcom they've invented, "My Two Dads Squared," comes from the number of fathers Daytrader Vader has (Dark Vader, Cousin Specialagent, and Griffin himself) because "two squared is three."
  • Mario Party TV: One comment pointed out that Steeler miscalculated the odds during the Pagoda Peak playthrough. The probability of rolling 4 of the same number is not 1/10,000. Since the dice blocks are numbered one to five, and there are 5 possible ways to get all 4 numbers being the same, the probability ends up being: 5/(5^4) = 1/125 (about the same as a golden with 1-10 blocks)
  • YouTube animator Ice Cream Sandwich, in his video "hurt", says that if 6.8 million Americans break a bone each year, and the total population is about 300 million, then about 2/10 Americans break a bone annually. If that sounds high, that's because he's off by an order of magnitude — with those numbers the injury rate would be 0.0226666..., or about 2/100, i.e. 2%. Not 20%.
  • Screen Rant Pitch Meetings often makes fun of these errors in movies.
    • For example, there's the sand path in A Quiet Place, and it's implied that the Screenwriter gravely underestimated how difficult it would make such a path to quietly move into town. The Producer says that filling his kid's sandbox takes 100 pounds of sand, so making a path into town would require literally tons of sand.
    • For Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, the Screenwriter estimated that New York City is only populated by about 200 people, only to be informed that the actual population is around 7 million at the time the film was made. Kevin's father is furious with him for spending $967 on room service, despite such a cost probably being somewhat negligible for someone who just paid to fly 14 people across the country twice, implying that the Screenwriter doesn't know how much those plane tickets would cost.

"80% of you have no understanding of percentages!"
"We aren't even that many..."


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Writers Cannot Do Maths


The Scarecrow Theorem

After getting his brain, the scarecrow attempts to recite the Pythagorean theorem, but gets it wrong.

How well does it match the trope?

4.36 (11 votes)

Example of:

Main / WritersCannotDoMath

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