What happens in your classroom when you give students the following task?

Prove .

Sometimes the command is *Verify* or *Show* instead of *Prove*, but the intent is the same.

# Two non-examples

Here are two ways that a student might work the problem.

**Method 1**

**Method 2**

How do you feel about these methods? In my opinion, both methods represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the prompt. Method 1 is especially grotesque, but Method 2 also leaves a lot to be desired. Let me explain. And if you think the above methods are perfectly fine, please be patient and hear me out.

This is the crux of the issue:

The prompt was to *prove* the statement. **But if the first line of our work ***is* the very thing we’re out to prove, then we are already assuming the thing we want to prove. We’re Begging the Question.

It’s as if someone demands,

*“Prove Statement X, please!” *

and we reply,

*“Well, let’s first start by assuming that Statement X is true.”*

This is nonsense.

# What went wrong?

So what is the proper way to engage this proof? Let’s roll back a bit.

The error in these approaches seems to stem from a desire to perform algebraic operations on both sides of an equation *in the same way that you might if you were solving an equation.*

When we “do algebra” and write Equation B below another Equation A without any words, we always mean that *Equation A implies Equation B*. That is, when we write

Equation A

Equation B

Equation C

etc…

we mean that Equation C *follows from* Equation B, which *follows* from Equation A.

Some might claim that each line should be *equivalent* to the last. But, again, when we “do algebra” by performing algebraic manipulations to both sides of an equation to transform it from equation A into equation B, we always mean , we don’t mean . Take, for example, the following algebra which results in an extraneous solution:

In this example, each line follows from the previous, however reversing the logic doesn’t work. But we accept that this is the usual way we do algebra (). Here the last line doesn’t hold because only one solution satisfies the original equation (). Remember that our logic is still flawless, though. Our logic just says that *IF* for a given , *THEN* .

As we move through the algebra line by line, we either preserve the solution set or *increase its size*. In the case above, the solution set for the original equation is {2}, and as we go to line 2 and beyond, the solution set is {2,-1}.

For more, James Tanton has a nice article about extraneous solutions and why they arise, which I highly recommend.

So if this is the universal way we interpret algebraic work, which is what I argue, then it is wrong to construct an argument of the form in order to prove statement A is true from premise C. The argument begs the question.

**Both Method 1 and Method 2 make this mistake.**

# How does a proof go again?

I want to actually make a more general statement. The argument I gave above regarding how we “do algebra” is actually how we present *any* sort of deductive argument. We always present such an argument *in order*, where later statements are supported by earlier statements.

ANY time we see a sequence of statements (not just equations) A, B, C that is being put forward as a proof, if logical connectives are missing, the mathematical community agrees that “” is the missing logical connection.

That is, if we see the proof A,B,C as a proof of statement C from premise A, we assume that the argument really means .

This is usually the interpretation in the typical two-column proof, as well. We just provide the next step with a supporting theorem/definition/axiom, but we don’t also go out of our way to say “oh, and line #7 follows from the previous lines.”

**Example**: Given a non-empty set with lower bound and upper bound , show that .

1. is non-empty and and are lower and upper bounds for . (given)

2. Set contains at least one element . (definition of non-empty)

3. and . (definitions of lower and upper bound)

4. . (transitive property of inequality)

Notice I never say that one line follows from the next. And also notice that it would be a mistake to interpret the logical connectives as *biconditional*.

# The path of righteousness

I encourage my students to work with only ONE side of the expression and manipulate it independently, in its own little dark box, and when it comes out into the light, if it looks the same as the other side, you’ve proved the equivalence of the expressions.

For example, to show that for , I would expect this kind of work for “full credit”:

Interestingly, I *WOULD* also accept an argument of the form as justification for conclusion A from premise C, but I would want a student to say “A is true **if and only if** B is true, which is true **if and only if** C is true.” Even though it provides a valid proof, I discourage students from using this somewhat cumbersome construction.

So let’s return to the original problem and show a few ways a student could do it *correctly*.

# Three examples

**Method A – A direct proof by manipulating only one side**

**Method B – A proof starting with a ***known* equality

**Method C – Carefully specifying biconditional implications**

While all of these are now technically correct, I think we all prefer Method A. The other methods are cool too. But please, please, promise me you won’t use Methods 1 or 2 which I presented in my introduction.

# In conclusion

Some might argue that the heavy criticism I’ve leveled against Methods 1 and 2 is nitpicking. But I disagree. This kind of careful reasoning is exactly the business of mathematicians. It’s not good enough to just produce “answers,” our job is to produce good reasoning. Mathematics, remember, is a *sense-making *discipline.

Thanks for staying with me to the end of this long-winded post. Can you tell I’ve had this conversation with a lot of students over the last ten years?

# Further reading

*Dave Richeson has a similar rant with a similar thesis here.*
*This article was originally inspired by this recent post on Patrick Honner’s blog. A bunch of us fought about this topic in the comments, and in the end, Patrick encouraged me to write my own post on the subject. So here I am. Thanks for pushing me in the right direction, Mr. Honner!*