The Unapologetic Mathematician

Mathematics for the interested outsider


Okay, usually I’m all behind XKCD, but today’s installment is a bit of a head-scratcher.

The title seems especially ill-chosen. I mean, I know that Randall’s not a doctor of linguistics, but he’s usually pretty on the ball. Clearly he can’t mean the title as a normative statement, but he also has to understand that “how it works” will commonly parse as “how it should work”. The fact that there’s no comeuppance for the jerk doesn’t help here. Without further comment, it’s easy to read the comic as an endorsement of this attitude.

The other thing that leaves a bad taste in my mouth is that the guy on the left is not a clearly-defined character we all know to be unpleasant already. Yes, I know this is arguing semiotics, but there’s a reason Goofus and Gallant comics are so easily read: a generic character will be interpreted as a generic person. Their behavior is then also taken as generic. Putting the Hat Guy in there would go a long way towards making this not seem like an endorsement.

And then the details are off. The characters are looking at a calculus problem. I don’t know anyone — at least any instructor — in this day and age who thinks like this at the calculus level. As far as I know, the psychological damage is usually done by this point. The attitude comes in during grade-school, so an arithmetic problem (and younger characters at the board) would be more appropriate. That is, unless Randall is asserting that this attitude is endemic (remember generic character => generic person) among calculus instructors.

In that case I really have to disagree with him on the strongest possible terms. But again, there’s no further comment, and the whole thing just feels disappointing as a result.

February 18, 2008 - Posted by | rants


  1. I claim that both students have written on the board
    \int_0^{(3\pi)^{1/3}} x^2 = \pi
    (the limits of integration are just too small to see), and therefore it’s actually the instructor who sucks at math. (Let’s ignore the fact that there’s no dx in the integral.)

    Also, I know plenty of guys with long hair. And girls with short hair.

    Comment by Isabel | February 18, 2008 | Reply

    • HAHAHA!!! You rule.

      Comment by Zephron | October 15, 2009 | Reply

  2. Well, yes. There are plenty of guys with long hair (myself included) and girls with short. But the standard iconography of XKCD is that hair denotes girls.

    Comment by John Armstrong | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  3. Here’s my interpretation. A guy sees another guy screw up, it’s something specific about that guy. A guy sees a girl screw up, and immediately generalizes to all women. It’s generic because it’s the formula for generic male sexism. That hat guy would be the wrong choice because he’s coolly evil, like a Bond villain. This is uncool evil.

    Comment by Walt | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  4. Yes, Walt, it could be descriptive. But in my opinion the imagery is far too vague.

    Comment by John Armstrong | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  5. Hat Guy lost his hat during the subway exchange, remember?

    Comment by Nick Bornak | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  6. I was thinking that, Nick, but iconography is iconography, and he’d have to get it back at some point.

    Actually, Walt is right that it couldn’t be Hat Guy. It’s not about cool vs. uncool evil, but because he likes nerdy girls.

    Still, there needs to be something more in the comic to signify disapproval.

    Comment by John Armstrong | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  7. I’m not a faithful reader of XKCD, but I took this installment (skeletal as it was) as a very ironic statement. I interpreted “How It Works” pretty automatically as “The Way Things [Often] Are”, without the slightest suggestion of endorsement.

    The figure on the left in each panel is some guy (not necessarily an instructor, or at least that wasn’t indicated to me) who makes a presumably correct observation about a particular individual when the individual is male, but then incorrectly generalizes when the individual is female. So the cartoon is a meta-observation on the reasoning skills of the figure on the left. (How endemic the attitude is among males is debatable, but it’s all too common, and that’s all I took Randall to be suggesting.)

    I’d agree that the calculus per se is cartoonishly presented and arguably inept (like most math in cartoons, or the kinds of chessboard positions you see in furniture store advertisments). Perhaps that’s disappointing, as I take it that Randall is generally mathematically savvy.

    Comment by Todd Trimble | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  8. Pipped by Walt. I need to refresh my screen as I write.

    Comment by Todd Trimble | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  9. OMG man…it’s just a comic… you are way too into it.

    Comment by Mgccl | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  10. Good call. Actually, looking back at Journal 2, Hat Guy has Hat Hair now to distinguish himself from the other stick figures. So it can’t really be Hat Guy anyway.

    Ah well.

    Comment by Nick Bornak | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  11. Man, PCness really has you scared into thinking people are idiots. I sincerely believe most people will understand this comic as criticism of common sexist attitudes, not as recommending sexism in any way. I don’t know what sort of people you hang out with, but the people I know, and specifically the ones who read xkcd, would not misconstrue the comic in the way you suggest.

    I hope I’m not being naive when I recommend to you to have a little more faith in people…

    Comment by Omar | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  12. John, I believe xkcd’s article was an example of comic irony. As the wikipedia article states, a classic example of such is “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”, from Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”.

    The fact that the sexist attitude was held by an utterly ordinary male adds to the (unfortunately) ironic truth of the message: these sorts of cognitive biases can be unconsciously present in otherwise decent people.

    Comment by Terence Tao | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  13. If only I didn’t have to write this exam and teach, I’d have more to say now. For the moment, I’ll leave it that there are a number of interpretations, and something about the vagueness of the comic as drawn unnerves me. Full deconstruction will have to wait until later, though.

    Omar: I didn’t say that it was recommending sexism. I very explicitly said that I’m sure he didn’t mean it as a normative statement. Again, it’s the vagueness that bugs me.

    Mgccl: You must learn the fun of playing with ideas and abstractions. Someone could just as easily say to you, “it’s just math” or “it’s just a computer program”.

    Comment by John Armstrong | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  14. I just looked at the previous one, “Helping”. I didn’t understand that one at all.

    Comment by Walt | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  15. Walt has it dead on. And it definitely happen in University settings…

    XKCD could have gone on to show two more frames, one where a guy gets a hard problem right and a girl gets the same hard problem right with the following captions: “wow, you’re good at math” and “wow, who gave you that answer?”

    It’s also broadly true of of any field that is dominated by some cultural group. Any would-be practitioner in the field from a different cultural group faces an uphill battle, as an unwitting representative.

    Comment by Michael R. Head | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  16. John, I hereby challenge you to find another calculus-educated human being who sees that comic and actually interprets it as an endorsement of the attitude of the character on the left. (Note that I said “interprets it as…”, not “believes that somewhere in the universe there might be someone else who interprets it as…”)

    What I find almost as strange is your assumption that the character on the left is an instructor, rather than a classmate or maybe a schoolmate who fairly recently took the same class. I mean, I realize that certain calculus instructors at the college level view their students with some contempt, but I sure don’t think that it’s common practice for them to say aloud, “Wow, you suck at math,” when one of their students writes something nonsensical.

    Comment by mike | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  17. mike sez:

    I realize that certain calculus instructors at the college level view their students with some contempt

    Which, in my mind, is just bad a background assumption as “girls are bad at math” or “people thing girls are bad at math”. Part of the reason that it works is because people are so willing to assume that instructors think badly of their students.

    Comment by John Armstrong | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  18. Walt beat me to it, so I’ll just add my name to the list of people echoing/recapitulating his take on it. TT and TT put it better than I would, but here are some rambling thoughts anyway.

    I’m not sure that “how it works” parses as “how it should work” but perhaps North American idiom differs in this respect from the UK. I do agree that the title is unnecessarily vague/ambiguous: perhaps
    “so it goes” would have been more accurate, if a little fatalistic. But I think the presence of the left hand frame for comparison is enough to stop this particular installment from being read as a prescription (it’s the juxtaposition that shows up the right-hand frame as crass).

    Maybe Randall should have shown an induction proof (done wrong) instead? Or would that be too self-referential?

    Interesting comments re the calculus setting being off — I hadn’t thought of that. (Tho’ the damage may have been done by then, as you suggest, I think similar attitudes can still have a harmful effect all through the undergraduate stage, based on what little I observed of my own cohort.)

    Comment by hellblazer | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  19. Here’s an analogous usage to the (mis)reading of “How It Works”: assembly instructions. “Here’s how the parts fit together.” There’s a definite normative statement in that context, in that the author intends the reader to follow the example set by the text.

    In the comic, I know from my outside knowledge of Randall that he does not intend a normative statement. But the analogy with instructions is a little too clear for my taste.

    Comment by John Armstrong | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  20. I think it depends how you fill in the referent for “it”. I took it to be “sexism”. I’m not sure how to know how people will take it on average.

    Comment by Walt | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  21. You’re right, Walt, and it’s left unclear what “it” means. As a programmer, Randall should be ashamed to leave a dangling pointer like this.

    Comment by John Armstrong | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  22. […] to Use the FToC I’ll get back to deconstructing comics another time. For now, I want to push on with some actual […]

    Pingback by How to Use the FToC « The Unapologetic Mathematician | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  23. While I pretty much agree with Walt et al., I do find something unsettling about the comic.

    When I first look at it, before reading anything, I have no clues to tell me whether to trust the bald guy. He’s just a generic character — heck, I don’t even know it’s a “him” — and I start by giving him the benefit of the doubt. Then I read, see the appalling behavior, and cringe a little that I “trusted” him.

    But I think that makes the comic more interesting. After all, real people don’t come with signs to tell you whether they can be trusted.

    Comment by Rolfe Schmidt | February 18, 2008 | Reply

  24. I’m always gear to learn from other people’s mistakes; that’s the only way I can progress, since I’m so bad at learning from my own. To that end, here are two questions for general discussion:

    1. Would the same comic “work” better with a title like “The State of Things”, which is difficult to parse in a way which implies endorsement, or perhaps a more pointed title like “Sexism”?

    2. Would the comic work better with a more sensible mistake, or should one aim for absurdism (note that the mouseover text reads, “It’s pi plus C, of course”)?

    Comment by Blake Stacey | February 19, 2008 | Reply

  25. Blake, I think both of those points will be addressed to some extent once I get my deconstruction up, probably sometime tomorrow. Good points to consider, though.

    Comment by John Armstrong | February 19, 2008 | Reply

  26. […] Deconstructing XKCD Okay, evidently I need to flex my Critical Theory muscles, atrophied from years of disuse, and bring them to bear on yesterday’s offhand remarks. […]

    Pingback by Deconstructing XKCD « The Unapologetic Mathematician | February 20, 2008 | Reply

  27. […] Really Important Last Monday I noticed an XKCD comic and then later deconstructed it. The upshot is that I didn’t like it, but many XKCD fans […]

    Pingback by What’s Really Important « The Unapologetic Mathematician | February 25, 2008 | Reply

  28. This is a total piece of crap. You suck!

    Comment by sigiszmund | March 11, 2008 | Reply

  29. Yes, sigiszmund, you show all the rhetorical skill I’d expect from a student at Brown. Good job there.

    Comment by John Armstrong | March 11, 2008 | Reply

  30. I don’t understand your complaint… I saw the comic is a twist on the sexism that’s usually prevalent in psychological theories (not that they are sexist theories, but that most of the theories describe how the different sexes are treated differently). The comic is distilled sexism.

    But no, ‘the way is works’ means, ‘how it happens,’ or ‘the way that it is working,’ with no endorsement to the sexism… In fact, pointing it out in a comical and blunt manner that would be showing the absurdity of some people’s judgements, and would be anything but endorsing the concept…

    Comment by DrNeroCF | April 2, 2008 | Reply

  31. I agree with #30. The comic shows how sexist attitudes “work”, in other words how they look in real life.

    It also makes the excellent point that the first members of *any* minority group entering a new field are going to be viewed as representing their whole group, and particularly the whole group will be blamed for any perceived (or real) failings of the individual. For instance, if a male professor flames out and comes nowhere near earning tenure, “we should never have hired him”, where when a female professor does the same thing, you are all too likely to hear “we should never have hired a woman.”

    Or, for another take on the same thing,

    On the flip side, I often see women in math/science saying “Oh, I suck” when a man in the same situation would be much more likely to say something like “Oh, this sucks.” That is, women more often blame themselves for their challenges while men blame something external (the particular problem, the poor teaching, or whatever).

    Comment by Joshua Zucker | April 3, 2008 | Reply

  32. To take at offense at this is to misinterpret it. It’s pointing out the stupid societal tendency to see men as individuals and judge them on individual merit and to lump women into a group. It’s pointing out that the fact that the INDIVIDUAL woman is bad at math does not mean that all women are.

    Comment by Hayley MacMillen | November 6, 2008 | Reply

  33. Hayley, yes, that’s the plain reading of the comic itself.

    I’ve said many times above (as you would know if you’d taken the time to read), what I’m picking at here is the inherent ambiguity in parsing the title of the comic, as opposed to the comic itself.

    Comment by John Armstrong | November 6, 2008 | Reply

  34. You’d have to be an idiot to misunderstand the comic in such a way. Its quite simple, you’re just stupid.

    Comment by Anonymous | December 4, 2008 | Reply

  35. Seriously, this is how old? And you’re still kicking it around? Man, someone needs a life.

    Comment by John Armstrong | December 4, 2008 | Reply

  36. rotfl what in the hell are you talking about?

    it’s clear this comic is not for you.

    “how it works” reads EXACTLY “how it works”, and if someone is stupid and reads it differently it’s definitly not author’s fault.

    “what about all the good things hitler did?” (cit.)

    Comment by Lo'oris | February 11, 2009 | Reply

  37. Comment #35 applies to you too, Lo’oris. And, by the way, a non-native speaker is exactly where I take lessons from on nuance in my own language, thanks.

    Comment by John Armstrong | February 11, 2009 | Reply

  38. The subject is about sexism generalizations, that is the ‘it’. This is a demonstration of how sexism works. It isn’t an endorsement.

    > Putting the Hat Guy in there would go a long way towards
    > making this not seem like an endorsement.

    The way I see it, the guy’s conclusion was idiotic. The hat guy is malevolent, not idiotic.

    Your interpretation is taking the wrong things too far in the wrong direction. You must be emotionally sensitive to something.

    Comment by Darren | October 1, 2009 | Reply

  39. Also, thanks for being high on google. I needed a link to this one, and was able to search it out quickly thanks you you.

    Comment by Darren | October 1, 2009 | Reply

  40. You’re welcome, Darren, and you’re taking this way too seriously. By the way, have you tried the search function on the XKCD webpage itself?

    Comment by John Armstrong | October 1, 2009 | Reply

  41. Was this post satire?

    Comment by Darren | October 1, 2009 | Reply

  42. Wow, you suck at reading XKCD

    Comment by kinton | August 11, 2017 | Reply

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