My Favorite One-Liners: Part 33

In this series, I’m compiling some of the quips and one-liners that I’ll use with my students to hopefully make my lessons more memorable for them.

Perhaps one of the more difficult things that I try to instill in my students is numeracy, or a sense of feeling if an answer to a calculation is plausible. As a initial step toward this goal, I’ll try to teach my students some basic pointers about whether an answer is even possible.

For example, when calculating a standard deviation, students have to compute E(X) and E(X^2):

E(X) = \sum x p(x) \qquad \hbox{or} \qquad E(X) = \int_a^b x f(x) \, dx

E(X^2) = \sum x^2 p(x) \qquad \hbox{or} \qquad E(X^2) = \int_a^b x^2 f(x) \, dx

After these are computed — which could take some time — the variance is then calculated:

\hbox{Var}(X) = E(X^2) - [E(X)]^2.

Finally, the standard deviation is found by taking the square root of the variance.

So, I’ll ask my students, what do you do if you calculate the variance and it’s negative, so that it’s impossible to take the square root? After a minute to students hemming and hawing, I’ll tell them emphatically what they should do:

It’s wrong… do it again.

The same principle applies when computing probabilities, which always have to be between 0 and 1. So, if ever a student computes a probability that’s either negative or else greater than 1, they can be assured that the answer is wrong and that there’s a mistake someplace in their computation that needs to be found.

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