Entering the town of Gold Hill, Colorado, you encounter one of the most extraordinary posted signs in the entire USA:
The founding year: 1859.
The elevation: 8463 feet.
The population: 118 people.
And at the bottom—oh, the glorious bottom—these three numbers have been added together, yielding a total of 10,440. You can check it yourself: 10,440 is exactly correct. The arithmetic is flawless.
It’s perfectly right… and profoundly wrong. It’s a memorable token of a common mathematical mistake: carrying out an operation without investigating its meaning.
I could easily spin out 1000 words bagging on this poor sign-maker. But I’m not going to. (For one thing, there’s a chance the error was a deliberate joke, and even if it wasn’t, there’s enough ridicule out there for bad math.) Instead, I want to argue the opposite.
This error isn’t brainless, stupid, or contemptible. Rather, in several ways, the Gold Hill error is a uniquely sophisticated and modern one.