Finance News & Insights

Hall of Shame: 5 biggest math blunders


You’d think passing Math 101 would be a requirement to help run a major organization. That may not be the case once you take a gander at some of these gigantic math gaffes.

Bet there were some pretty red faces (and quite possibly some pink slips) once these blunders were discovered:

Mistake #1: Flunked

Someone working for the Maryland Board of Education could use a little more education himself, after making a simple addition error that threw off an estimate of state wealth by $18 million.

The errors spread undetected to the budgets of 18 counties and penalized the state’s largest school system.

Ultimate cost of this math mistake? $31 million.

Mistake #2: Mission overcharged

Government auditors got quite a shock when they took a look at the largest support services contract for the U.S. effort in Iraq.

The proposed charges? $110 million for supplies to bases that were already shut down, $212 million in overcharges for meals for the troops (some of which were never served) and another $50 million in duplicate charges.

No claims of funny business here; just simple weaknesses in “accounting, purchasing, estimating and billing.” Is that all?

Ultimate cost of this math mistake? $215 million, after the government withheld the disputed amounts.

Mistake #3: Lights, camera, lawsuit

It was no Hollywood ending for the Motion Picture Association of America, which paid for a study that determined college students were responsible for a whopping 40% of all illegal movie downloads.

Lawsuits were initiated to go after the pirates with guns blazing. Only problem? Bad math – turns out the college students were behind just 15% of the illegal downloads.

Ultimate cost of this math mistake? Unknown, but no doubt there were some pretty hefty legal bills to foot.


Mistake #4: All out of energy

And you thought global warming was dangerous! How about bureaucrats with sub-par math skills?

An Illinois plant working to curb greenhouse gas emissions in coal plants was shut down by the Department of Energy after it was considered too expensive an undertaking. Except that the mother of all math errors put the DOE’s estimate off by $500 million!

Ultimate cost of this math mistake? $500 million and who knows how much to the future of the planet.

Mistake #5: History repeating itself

And if there was any hope that these types of math mistakes wouldn’t be repeated, we won’t hold our breath based on this final error.

A jaw-dropping 109,263 errors were found in math books being considered for elementary school children and teachers. Included among the blunders were incorrect computations and answer keys included in the student versions of the books!

Ultimate cost of this math mistake? $116.8 million.

Got a whopper of a math mistake to share? Post it here.

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  • Langmuir Blodget

    Don’t forget the billions of dollars wasted over the CO2 greenhouse gas fraud. Any scientist
    willing to prostitute himself can get unlimited funding, as long as the results he
    conjures up supports the government line. There is a lot of bad math going on there,
    but as long as it supports government tyrrany nobody notices.

  • Chris Lee

    Re: Got a whopper of a math mistake to share? Post it here.

    Have you seen my paycheck lately???


  • Thomas Michelmore

    How about the biggest government fraud of all- the Ponzi scheme that is the SSA. Between that and Medicare we have a math error of some $19 trillion dollars of unfunde liabilites.

  • Dee johnson

    Do you really think global warming is a hoax? Do you also think the earth is flat?

  • Sharon W

    Could we see your numbers on this please………you may be off, who knows!

  • Sheri

    Global Warming ha!…you must not live in Michigan!

  • What makes anyone think that they can predict what is going to happen in 20 years when they can’t even get tomorrow’s forcast right?

  • RM

    I completely agree Ed, Thomas and Chris. I had to laugh as you all have it right! We would be better off with regular people taking a stab at it rather then the government educated.

  • SanDee

    These are large blunders!!!! But please keep in mind that the accountants are overworked and understaffed. I am the only one in my department. We have a Secretary that is part-time in my department. But when I need her help the director has her working on another project. Which causes me to have to put in extra hours. I am not always give correct information for the budget which can cause major problems.

  • MsMath

    Isn’t it interesting that private businesses do NOT share their math errors? They make many that cost us even more, but these costs are just added on to our costs for goods and services. Big money even have mathematically insane guiding principles that lead to bubbles and bubble collapses. Little money seems to follow along hoping that someday they might win too. Each of those elementary textbooks shared in this article were produced by major corporations. Written quickly to turn a quick profit, our textbooks are now all filled with errors–and they are sold to the public sector at astronomical prices. I wish those who defame government would cast the same critical eye on the private sector.

  • RLB

    That’s an interesting point MsMath. However it’s also our governments job along with our school districts and other held accountable to refuse to buy such quality and demand better. Either way you look at it, our government and agencies make the standard. They are the ones who tell us what qualifies and how to do things. If they are willing to waste our money with what the private sector does then how can we hold anyone else up to a higher standard. That sets the precident and then all that ends up available is over priced crap! If they are willing to demand better standards and not accept the prices and quality then they would rethink and also eat what they’ve put into it and make something that is worth our time, money and taxes. It is all an issue and all areas are responsible. We can’t say it’s one or the other but the govenment is taking our monies and spending it like no-one cares…why would anyone else change their standard? It’s all crap we are caught in, we all pay!

  • MsMath

    I agree that we need to hold our government accountable, and in that vein the first thing I want the government (that would be me and you through our representatives) to do is to bust up the big corporations (and the profiteering system) that makes “crap” the only thing available and then sells it for more than the “real deal” is worth.

    I am familiar with textbooks, so let me give you the example I can clearly speak to. Once we had hundreds of textbook publishers. Textbooks were priced to sell on an open market, and companies kept the same book in print for years. Profits were based on quality and good service. Real competition produced a good book at a reasonable price for schools and students.

    Now we have three corporations that own all of the good old companies: PEARSON is the biggest textbook publisher and they own Addison-Wesley, Allyn & Bacon, BBC Active, Benjamin Cummings,Cisco Press, FT Prentice Hall, Longman, New Riders, Peachpit Press, Penguin Longman, Prentice Hall, QUE Publishing, SAMS Publishing, Wharton, York Notes and possibly others. MC GRAW HILL owns Macmillan, SRA, Glencoe and the Wright Group. HOUGHTON MIFFLIN also owns Harcout, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, McDougal/Littell. Many, many other publishing names have been folded into these three conglomerates along the way.

    These corporations also hold the copyrights to some excellent scholarly books, but they are no longer printing these books! They pay a small fee to renew these copyrights, and that means that I can no longer get these books to students. Recently I looked for a book to give to a graduating student. I paid $4.99 new for this teaching supplement in the early 80s. It was out of print, The Wright Group holds the copyright, and the least expensive used copy I could find was $73 at Amazon. I could give you other examples, in fact this is how I found out that these companies are continuing to pay copyright for books they no longer publish. Isn’t that eliminating the competition?

    Textbooks are now revised in a couple of years so that a whole new edition of the book must be purchased by a school district every few years. College students spend over $100 for one book for one math class at the college level. My granddaughter’s high school could not afford the geometry textbook that cost $75 so they bought students the $17 web access instead. This grandma purchased the book at Amazon because my grandaughter is an avid reader. She loved having the book.

    As a teacher I am paid by the public. I have personally searched for and found classroom sets of good-old used textbooks for my students and have paid for these at my own expense . I can afford this because when a new edition of a textbook comes out, the used books drop to below $5 each.

    I have also coauthored a book that is printed at cost for students through my school. I, and others like me, are government employees who work hard to find the best quality resources at the best price for those that we serve.

    But we should all be doing these things whether we are public or private employees. When we wave the flag it should be with some self-respect for putting in honest work and we too have expected quality and settled for nothing less.

    So I agree with you. We, whether in public or private life, along with our representatives, should quit cutting slack to those who are profiting without bringing added value to the table. And, “Bully!”,
    we need to be looking for the Teddy Roosevelts and help them get elected.