Forward problems are problems with a well-defined answer: throwing a fair die, what’s the probability of getting a 4? Inverse problems look at data and create what necessarily has uncertainty: looking at this data, was it generated with a fair die?
Most problems given in mathematics classes (outside of statistics) are forward problems, with well-defined answers. Yet, most real-life problems are inverse problems. We don’t know the actual equations of the world, and even if we did, our measurement of reality would have uncertainty.
Pure mathematics is important, but I maintain complete allergy to error is unhealthy and gives a distorted view of mathematics. Consider, for instance —
This is my favorite of Dan Meyer’s videos.
If you go through the calculations correctly for working out how long it takes Dan to get up the stairs, the answer comes short by about a second and a half.
Yet, this is still a perfectly valid problem. Where did the extra time come from? This is a useful discussion and matches the sorts of discussions scientists and engineers have often.
(Note the long step, which would naturally extend the time slightly.)
There’s also inverse problems where nobody could truly know the answer (but we can get a pretty good idea anyway with mathematics). I’ve mentioned previously my favorite problem from teaching statistics:
Based solely on the number of wrecks, is there anything mystical going on in the Bermuda Triangle?
By its very nature, “is anything mystical going on?” is a unfalsifiable claim, hence the problem is necessarily an inverse one. The students used a shipwreck database to decide if the number of wrecks in the area is abnormally high. (They found it was safer inside the Bermuda Triangle than outside it.)
The teacher can also manufacture an inverse problem where the teacher knows the answer but the students are not given enough to make a truly definitive answer.
For example, here are two excerpts from 19th century American humorists:
Under favorable circumstances the Roller-Towel House would no doubt be thoroughly refitted and refurnished throughout. The little writing-table in each room would have its legs reglued, new wicks would be inserted in the kerosene lamps, the stairs would be dazzled over with soft soap, and the teeth in the comb down in the wash-room would be reset and filled. Numerous changes would be made in the corps de ballet also. The large-handed chambermaid, with the cow-catcher teeth and the red Brazil-nut of hair on the back of her head, would be sent down in the dining-room to recite that little rhetorical burst so often rendered by the elocutionist of the dining-room—the smart Aleckutionist, in the language of the poet, beginning: “Bfsteakprkstk’ncoldts,” with a falling inflection that sticks its head into the bosom of the earth and gives its tail a tremolo movement in the air.
On receipt of $5 from each one of the traveling men of the union new hinges would be put into the slippery-elm towels; the pink soap would be revarnished; the different kinds of meat on the table will have tags on them, stating in plain words what kinds of meat they are so that guests will not be forced to take the word of servant or to rely on their own judgement; fresh vinegar with a sour taste to it, and without microbes, will be put in the cruets; the old and useless cockroaches will be discharged; and the latest and most approved adjuncts of hotel life will be adopted.
On the fourth night temptation came, and I was not strong enough to resist. When I had gazed at the disk awhile I pretended to be sleepy, and began to nod. Straightway came the professor and made passes over my head and down my body and legs and arms, finishing each pass with a snap of his fingers in the air, to discharge the surplus electricity; then he began to “draw” me with the disk, holding it in his fingers and telling me I could not take my eyes off it, try as I might; so I rose slowly, bent and gazing, and followed that disk all over the place, just as I had seen the others do. Then I was put through the other paces. Upon suggestion I fled from snakes; passed buckets at a fire; became excited over hot steamboat-races; made love to imaginary girls and kissed them; fished from the platform and landed mud-cats that outweighed me—and so on, all the customary marvels. But not in the customary way. I was cautious at first, and watchful, being afraid the professor would discover that I was an impostor and drive me from the platform in disgrace; but as soon as I realized that I was not in danger, I set myself the task of terminating Hicks’s usefulness as a subject, and of usurping his place.
It was a sufficiently easy task. Hicks was born honest; I, without that incumbrance—so some people said. Hicks saw what he saw, and reported accordingly; I saw more than was visible, and added to it such details as could help. Hicks had no imagination, I had a double supply. He was born calm, I was born excited. No vision could start a rapture in him, and he was constipated as to language, anyway; but if I saw a vision I emptied the dictionary onto it and lost the remnant of my mind into the bargain.
Which one is Mark Twain? I gave another known Mark Twain excerpt to the students and had them do statistical analysis to justify their answer as A or B.
It’s a messy and “impure” problem and even can be partly reckoned with via English class skills. Statistics deals with such worries all the time, yet many American students never see such a problem until possibly their senior year and often not until college.
Even ignoring statistics and just considering modeling problems like the first one, mathematics teachers seem deeply uncomfortable with the possibility of error. Mathematics is only infallible when contained within its own world.