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The first thing to say is that this is not the same as the question about interesting mathematical mistakes. I am interested about the type of false beliefs that many intelligent people have while they are learning mathematics, but quickly abandon when their mistake is pointed out -- and also in why they have these beliefs. So in a sense I am interested in commonplace mathematical mistakes.

Let me give a couple of examples to show the kind of thing I mean. When teaching complex analysis, I often come across people who do not realize that they have four incompatible beliefs in their heads simultaneously. These are

(i) a bounded entire function is constant;
(ii) sin(z) is a bounded function;
(iii) sin(z) is defined and analytic everywhere on C;
(iv) sin(z) is not a constant function.

Obviously, it is (ii) that is false. I think probably many people visualize the extension of sin(z) to the complex plane as a doubly periodic function, until someone points out that that is complete nonsense.

A second example is the statement that an open dense subset U of R must be the whole of R. The "proof" of this statement is that every point x is arbitrarily close to a point u in U, so when you put a small neighbourhood about u it must contain x.

Since I'm asking for a good list of examples, and since it's more like a psychological question than a mathematical one, I think I'd better make it community wiki. The properties I'd most like from examples are that they are from reasonably advanced mathematics (so I'm less interested in very elementary false statements like $(x+y)^2=x^2+y^2$, even if they are widely believed) and that the reasons they are found plausible are quite varied.

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I have to say this is proving to be one of the more useful CW big-list questions on the site... –  Qiaochu Yuan May 6 '10 at 0:55
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The answers below are truly informative. Big thanks for your question. I have always loved your post here in MO and wordpress. –  Unknown May 22 '10 at 9:04
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wouldn't it be great to compile all the nice examples (and some of the most relevant discussion / comments) presented below into a little writeup? that would make for a highly educative and entertaining read. –  Suvrit Sep 20 '10 at 12:39
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It's a thought -- I might consider it. –  gowers Oct 4 '10 at 20:13
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Meta created tea.mathoverflow.net/discussion/1165/… –  quid Oct 8 '11 at 14:27

199 Answers 199

There is a bijection between the set of [true: prime!] ideals of $S^{-1}R$ and the set of [true: prime!] ideals of $R$ which do not intersect $S$.

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The product of two symmetric matrices is symmetric!

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By googling one sees that each of the following statements has a significant number of believers:

(1) the vector space {0} has no basis,

(2) the empty set is a basis of {0} by convention,

(3) the statements "{0} has no basis" and "the empty set is a basis of {0}" are equivalent,

(4) the statements "{0} has no basis" and "the empty set is a basis of {0}" are NOT equivalent,

(5) the statement "the empty set is a basis of {0}" is an immediate consequence of the definitions of the terms involved.

I think that we'll all agree that the 5 beliefs are not ALL true. My personal religion is to believe in (4) and (5). I don't think I'll ever understand the arguments in favor of (1), (2) or (3).

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I feel like there are a lot of areas in mathematics in which the empty set is interpreted in a certain way (for example, the empty product is one, the empty sum is zero, the empty set has one map into any non-empty set, etc). Given each of these particular situations locally, I might agree that it is a convention in each case. However, given the ubiquity of such "conventions," one might think that there is a uniform description of what the empty set really "means" in these contexts. If this becomes the case, then I might argue for (5), which would follow from this conception of the empty set. –  David Corwin Jul 7 '10 at 23:48

A common belief of students in real analysis is that if $$ \lim_{x\to x_0}f(x,y_0),\qquad\lim_{y\to y_0}f(x_0,y) $$ exist and are both equal to $l$, then the function has limit $l$ in $(x_0,y_0)$. It is easly to show counter-examples. More difficult is to show that also the belief $$ \lim_{t\to 0}f(x_0+ht,y_0+kt)=l,\quad\forall\;(h,k)\neq(0,0)\quad\Rightarrow\quad\lim_{(x,y)\to(x_0,y_0)}f(x,y)=l $$ is false. For completeness's sake (presumably anybody who ever taught calculus has seen it, but it's easily forgotten) the standard counterexample is $$ f(x,y)=\frac{xy^2}{x^2+y^4} $$ at $(0,0$).

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That counterexample has the advantage of being well-behaved away from $(0,0)$, but the (related) disadvantages of being easily forgotten and requiring a bit of thought to come up with. This can make things look trickier than they are. For this reason, I prefer brain-dead counterexamples like $f(x,y)=1$ if $y=x^2 \neq 0$, $f(x,y)=0$ otherwise. –  Chris Eagle Jan 12 '11 at 17:11
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@Chris As you know, this is not a "real function" to the minds of calculus students. –  Ryan Reich Jan 2 '14 at 3:04

The distinction between convergence and uniform convergence. It even got Cauchy in its time.

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I'm pretty sure I've heard both of the following multiple times:

  1. Transfinite induction requires the axiom of choice. False, though many applications of transfinite induction require axiom of choice (either in the form of the well-ordering theorem, or directly (though using transfinite induction together with choice directly is essentially the same as just using Zorn's Lemma)).

  2. Transfinite induction requires the axiom of foundation. I guess some people get transfinite induction mixed up with epsilon-induction?

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It took me a bit too long to realize that these two beliefs are contradictory:

  • Period 3 $\Rightarrow$ chaos: if a continuous self-map on the interval has a period-3 orbit, then it has orbits of all periods.
  • The black dots on each horizontal slice of this picture above $x=a$ show the location of the periodic points of the logistic map $f_a(y) = ay(1-y)$: Bifurcation diagram for the logistic map

You can clearly see a 3-cycle in the light area towards the right; yet we know that if there is a 3-cycle in that slice then there must be a cycle of any period in that slice... so where are they?

(The other cycles are there of course, but they are repelling and hence are not visible. You can see artifacts from these repelling cycles near the period-doubling bifurcations in this picture)

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Here's a relevant back-and-forth about the use of the term 'chaos' in the AMS Notices (in response to Freeman Dyson's 'Birds and Frogs'): ams.org/notices/200906/rtx090600688p.pdf ams.org/notices/200910/rtx091001232p.pdf –  Mike Hall Aug 8 '11 at 0:17

In group theory, if $G_1 \cong G_2$ and $H_1 \cong H_2$, then

$G_1 / H_1 \cong G_2 / H_2$.

For example, $\mathbb{Z} / 2\mathbb{Z} \not \cong \mathbb{Z} / \mathbb{Z}$. The point is that the inclusion of $H_j$ into $G_j$ is needed in order to define the quocient.

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It always confused me as an undergraduate that $\mathbb{Q}\subset\mathbb{R}$ has an open neighborhood $N_\epsilon \supset\mathbb{Q}$ of arbitrarily small measure $\epsilon$, because $\mathbb{Q}$ is dense in $\mathbb{R}$.

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Here's one from basic set theory. Let k be a cardinal and consider the operation "adding k", meaning

$l \mapsto k+l$

on cardinals. We know that this operation "stabilizes" to the identity after $k$, that is, for any $l>k$, we have $l+k = l$. Similarly, the "multiplying by $k$" operation,

$l \mapsto l * k$

stabilizes to the identity after $k$.

Everyone also knows that if $l$ is an infinite cardinal then $l^2$ is equipotent to $l$, and more generally $l^n$ is equipotent to $l$ for every natural number $n$. I.e. all the finite power functions stabilize to the identity at $\omega$.

Well, obviously "exponentiation by $\omega$" also stabilizes at some point, right? Like, $l^\omega$ is equal to $l$ for sufficiently large $l$? Look, we probably already have the stabilization point at $2^\omega$.

Right?

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Why not? As an algebraist, my reaction already after "addition of k stabilizes" would be "if THAT holds, than WHATEVER". –  Victor Protsak Jun 10 '10 at 6:45
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Victor, I held this belief for a good while when first learning set theory. I tried proving it a couple of times and failed, but I was in that stage just after I'd gotten the hang of basic cardinality arguments and they all seemed simple, so I figured it was just a matter of small details. –  Pietro KC Jun 10 '10 at 9:01
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But it turns out that k^l is intimately linked with the cofinality of k, which is the length of the shortest unbounded sequence in k. For example, cof(omega) = omega, since sequences of length less than omega are finite, and thus bounded in omega. Similarly, cof(aleph_1) is aleph_1, since any countable sequence in aleph_1 is bounded. It's not immediately obvious that some cardinal k has cof(k) < k, but aleph_omega does! Anyway, the relevant theorem is that k^cof(k) > k, so there are arbitrarily large k s.t. k^omega > k. –  Pietro KC Jun 10 '10 at 9:06

Sequence $\{a_n\}$ has a limit $A$ in $\mathbb{R}$ and a limit $B$ in $\mathbb{Q}_p$. Then $A$ is rational iff $B$ is rational.

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Or: if a sequence has a rational limit in Q_p and in Q_r, then they're the same. –  Qiaochu Yuan May 5 '10 at 4:16
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But if a rational sequence has a limit in all Q_p, including Q_\infty ... –  Gerald Edgar May 5 '10 at 12:17

"A 'random' number field has large class number"

I've heard this belief quite a few times. Usually random means taking a not-too-small degree (7?) and then somehow taking integer coefficients (around 10,000?).

But in fact class number tend to be much smaller than one expects. Usually they are logarithmic in the size of the discriminant.

The main reasons for the belief are the common examples of fields given in undergraduate and early graduate courses - imaginary quadratic fields and cyclotomic fields. In more advanced courses students see abelian extensions and CM-fields, which also have special arithmetic properties that make their class groups somewhat larger. In the courses I have taken the actual size of 'random' number fields was not addressed, and, say, the Cohen-Lenstra heuristics were not mentioned.

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Complex variables: "An entire function that is onto and locally one-to-one is globally one-to-one."

Counterexample: $f(z) := \int_0^z \exp(\zeta^2)\,d\zeta$

I'll leave the proof that this is indeed a counterexample as a pleasant exercise.

(I believe this example is due to Lawrence Zalcman.)

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@MichaelHardy, if we're going to {\TeX}pick, then surely it should be something like ${\mathrm d}\zeta$ (rather than $d\zeta$), since the $\mathrm d$ is an operator (rather than a variable)? –  L Spice Dec 12 '13 at 23:20

The fundamental group of the Klein bottle is $D_\infty$, the infinite dihedral group (which is $\mathbb Z \rtimes \mathbb Z_2$).

I believed this for some time, and I seem to recall some others having the same confusion.

The group that has been mistaken for $D_\infty$ is in fact $\mathbb Z \rtimes\mathbb Z$, which can also be written with the presentation $x^2y^2=1$. The former abelianizes to $\mathbb Z_2\oplus \mathbb Z_2$, the latter to $\mathbb Z\oplus \mathbb Z_2$.

A 2-dimensional Lie group is a product of circles and lines, in particular it is abelian.

I don't know if anyone else suffered this one. The mistake is (a) in forgetting that the classification of surfaces doesn't apply since homeomorphic Lie groups are not necessarily isomorphic (e.g., the (bijective, orientation preserving) affine transformations $x\mapsto ax+b$, where $a>0, b\in \mathbb R$ are homeomorphic to $\mathbb R^2$, though not isomorphic) and (b) that Lie groups aren't necessarily connected, in particular $\mathbb R^2$ cross any finite non-abelian group is non-abelian.

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(*) "Let $(I,\leq)$ be a directed ordered set, and $E=(f_{ij}:E_i\to E_j)_{i\geq j}$ be an inverse system of nonempty sets with surjective transition maps. Then the inverse limit $\varprojlim_I\,E$ is nonempty."

This is true if $I=\mathbb{N}$ ("dependent choices"), and hence more generally if $I$ has a countable cofinal subset. But surprisingly (to me), those are the only sets $I$ for which (*) holds for every system $E$. (This is proved somewhere in Bourbaki's exercises, for instance).

Of course, other useful cases where (*) holds are when the $E_i$'s are finite, or more generally compact spaces with continuous transition maps.

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Here are mistakes I find surprisingly sharp people make about the weak$^{*}$ topology on the dual of $X,$ where $X$ is a Banach space.

-It is metrizable if $X$ is separable.

-It is locally compact by Banach-Alaoglu.

-The statement $X$ is weak$^{*}$ dense in the double dual of $X$ proves that the unit ball of $X$ is weak$^{*}$ dense in the unit ball of the double dual of $X.$

The first two are in fact never true if $X$ is infinite dimensional. While both statements in the third claim are true, the second one is significantly stronger, but a lot of people believe you can get it from the first by just "rescaling the elements" to have norm $\leq 1.$ (Although the proof of the statements in the third claim is not hard). The difficulty is that if $X$ is infinite dimensional then for any $\phi$ in the dual of $X,$ there exists a net $\phi_{i}$ in the dual of $X$ with $\|\phi_{i}\|\to \infty$ and $\phi_{i}\to \phi$ weak$^{*},$ so this rescaling trick cannot be uniformly applied. Really these all boil down to the following false belief:

-The dual of $X$ has a non-empty norm bounded weak$^{*}$ open set.

Again when $X$ is infinite dimensional this always fails.

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I think $M(T)$ is not metrizable in the weak$^\ast$ topology, and in fact my claim that this fails for every infinite dimensional Banach space i also think is true. The rough outline of the proof I saw was this: 1. If $X^\ast$ is weak$^\ast$ metrizable, then a first countabliity at the origin argument implies that $X^\ast$ has a translation invariant metric given the weak$^\ast$ topology. 2. One can characterize completeness topologically for translation-invariant metrics, and see directly that if $X^\ast$ had a translation-invariant metric given the weak$^\ast$ topology it would be complete. –  Benjamin Hayes Oct 12 '11 at 3:42

" Every open dense subset of $\mathbb{R}^n$ has full Lebesgue measure. "

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"Some real numbers are not definable, by Cantor's diagonal argument."

There are subtleties involved in formalizing the statment "some real numbers are not definable", as explained in Joel's answer to this question. The statement can be seen to hold in some models and fail in other models. However, the claim that the statement follows from Cantor's diagonal argument is clearly false, yet seems to be fairly common.

The false reasoning typically proceeds in three steps:

  1. There are only countably many definitions of real numbers: $\varphi_0(x),\varphi_1(x),\ldots$ (this part is ok.)

  2. Consider the countably many real numbers so defined: $x_0,x_1,\ldots$ (this part is problematic for subtle reasons.)

  3. Use Cantor's diagonal argument to obtain a real number $y$ that is not in the sequence from step 2, and is therefore not definable.

For the moment, let us assume that step 2 succeeds in the way that one might naively think it would. Then we have defined a sequence $x_0,x_1,\ldots$ containing all definable real numbers. Therefore Cantor's diagonal argument in step 3 defines, from this sequence, a real number $y$ that is not in the sequence. So $y$ is both definable and not definable, and we obtain a contradiction outright! Clearly, something is wrong (and it turns out to be in step 2.)

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An incredibly common false belief is:

For a (say smooth, projective) algebraic variety $X$ the $K_X$-negative part of the cone $NE(X)$ is locally polyhedral.

A right statement of the theorem of the cone is

$\overline{NE(X)} = \overline{NE(X)}_{K_X \geq 0} + \sum_{i} \mathbb{R}[C_i]$ for a denumerable set $\{ C_i \}$ of rational curves, which accumulate at most on the hyperplane $K_X = 0$.

At a first glance this seems to imply that $\overline{NE(X)}_{K_X < 0}$ is locally poyhedral, but this is not true. It depends on the shape of the intersection $\overline{NE(X)} \cap \{ K_X = 0 \}$.

For instance if this latter intersection is round, and there is only one curve $C_i$, the half-cone $\overline{NE(X)}_{K_X < 0}$ is actually a circular cone! Definitely not polyhedral in any sense. I believe this behaviour can happen even with varieties birational to abelian varieties.

The strange thing about this false belief is that it is held true by many competent mathematicians (and indeed I don't believe that many undergraduates meet the theorem of the cone!).

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Incredibly common? The number of people who can even understand the statement, let alone believe it, isn't all that large... –  Victor Protsak May 5 '10 at 6:57
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Yes, but among those, almost all believe that the wrong version is true. –  Andrea Ferretti May 5 '10 at 10:13
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And about 50% of the large community who cannot understand the point will believe that the right version is true! Rather high percentage... –  Wadim Zudilin May 5 '10 at 11:41

"the quadratic variation of a Brownian motion between $0$ and $T$ is equal to $T$"

this is only true that if $\mathcal{D}^N$ is a nested sequence of partitions of $[0,T]$ (with mesh size going to $0$) then the quadratic variation of a Brownian motion along these partitions converges towards $T$, almost surely. If we define the quadratic variation of a continuous function $f$ as we would like to, $$Q(f,[0,T]) = \sup_{0=t_0<\ldots, t_n=T } \sum |f(t_k)-f(t_{k+1})|^2,$$ then the Brownian paths have almost surely infinite quadratic variation.

This was something I had never noticed until I read the wonderful book "Brownian motion" by Peter Morters and Yuval Peres.

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If $E$ is a contractible space on which the (Edit: topological) group $G$ acts freely, then $E/G$ is a classifying space for $G$.

A better, but still false, version:

If $E$ is a free, contractible $G$-space and the quotient map $E\to E/G$ admits local slices, then $E/G$ is a classifying space for $G$.

(Here "admits local slices" means that there's a covering of $E/G$ by open sets $U_i$ such that there exist continuous sections $U_i \to E$ of the quotient map.)

The simplest counterexample is: let $G^i$ denote $G$ with the indiscrete topology (Edit: and assume $G$ itself is not indiscrete). Then G acts on $G^i$ by translation and $G^i$ is contractible (for the same reason: any map into an indiscrete space is continuous). Since $G^i/G$ is a point, there's a (global) section, but it cannot be a classifying space for $G$ (unless $G=\{1\}$). The way to correct things is to require that the translation map $E\times_{E/G} E \to G$, sending a pair $(e_1, e_2)$ to the unique $g\in G$ satisfying $ge_1 = e_2$, is actually continuous.

Of course the heart of the matter here is the corresponding false belief(s) regarding when the quotient map by a group action is a principal bundle.

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I don't know how common this is, but I've noticed it half an hour ago in some notes I had written: If $J$ is a finitely generated right ideal of a not necessarily commutative ring $R$, and $n$ is natural, then $J^n$ is finitely generated, isn't it?

No, it isn't. For an example, try $R=\mathbb Z\left\langle X_1,X_2,X_3,...\right\rangle $ (ring of noncommutative polynomials) and $J=X_1R$.

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A random $k$-coloring of the vertices of a graph $G$ is more likely to be proper than a random $(k-1)$-coloring of the same graph.

(A vertex coloring is proper if no two adjacent vertices are colored identically. In this case, random means uniform among all colorings, or equivalently, that each vertex is i.i.d. colored uniformly from the space of colors.)

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...wait, what's the truth then? –  Harry Altman May 10 '11 at 0:06
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For some graphs $G$ and integers $k$, the opposite. The easiest example is the complete bipartite graph $K_{n,n}$ with $k=3$. The probability a $2$-coloring is proper is about $(1/4)^n$ while the same for a $3$-coloring is about $(2/9)^n$, where I've ignored minor terms like constants. The actual probabilities cross at $n=10$, so as an explicit example, a random $2$-coloring of $K_{10,10}$ is more likely to be proper than a random $3$-coloring. –  aorq May 10 '11 at 0:37
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This seems like a good example of a counterintuitive statement, but to call it a common false belief would mean that there are lots of people who think it's true. The question would probably never have occurred to me it I hadn't seen it here. The false belief that Euclid's proof of the infinitude of primes, on the other hand, actually gets asserted in print by mathematicians---in some cases good ones. –  Michael Hardy May 10 '11 at 15:36

A possible false belief is that "a maximal Abelian subgroup of a compact connected Lie group is a maximal torus". Think of the $\mathbf Z_2\times\mathbf Z_2$-subgroup of $SO(3)$ given by diagonal matrices with $\pm1$ entries.

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Fu... I just "proved" that again as an exercise a few days ago. –  Johannes Hahn Mar 6 '13 at 0:02

This is a common error made by mature mathematicians in many books and papers in analysis, especially in differential equations: If $X$ is a closed subspace of a Banach space $Y$, then the $Y^*$ (the dual of $Y$) is isomorphic to a subspace of $X^*$ (the dual of $X$). It is false (of course) since Euclidian space $\mathbb R$ is a subspace of $\mathbb R^2$, yet the dual of $\mathbb R^2=\mathbb R^2$ is not isomorphic to a subspace of the dual of $\mathbb R=\mathbb R$. I guess, sometimes they really, really want it to be true. Cheers Boris

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I would also be shocked if this really gets believed often! It seems to be a sort of “mis-dualisation”: they dualise “$X$ is a subobject of $Y$” to “$Y^*$ is a subobject of $X^*$”, where the correct dual is “$X^*$ is a quotient of $Y^*$”. –  Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Dec 1 '10 at 15:19

The cost of multiplying two $n$-digit numbers is of order $n^2$ (because each digit of the first number has to be multiplied with each digit of the second number).


A lot of information is found on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiplication_algorithm .

The first faster (and easily understandable) algorithm was http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karatsuba_algorithm with complexity $n^{log_2 3} \sim n^{1.585}$.

Basic idea: To multiply $x_1x_2$ and $y_1y_2$ where all letters refer to $n/2$-digit parts of $n$-digit numbers, calculate $x_1 \cdot y_1$, $x_2\cdot y_2$ and $(x_1+x_2)\cdot(y_1+y_2)$ and note that this is sufficient to calculate the result with three such products instead of four.

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It would be better if these misconceptions would come with explanations how things really are... –  darij grinberg Apr 10 '11 at 18:28
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Along these lines: there is a widespread misapprehension that multiplication is the same thing as a multiplication algorithm (whichever one the speaker learned in elementary school). –  Thierry Zell Apr 10 '11 at 19:25
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At least it's better than people thinking multiplication is constant-time. :P –  Harry Altman Apr 10 '11 at 19:35

I guess you don't want commonly held beliefs of students that for every real number there is a next real number, or that convergent sequences are eventually constant. A version I saw in a book asked whether points on a line "touch." Understanding the topology of a line is a challenge for many students, although presumably not for most mathematicians.

Here is a more esoteric belief that I have even seen in some books:

"The Banach-Tarski Paradox says that a ball the size of a pea can be cut into 5 pieces and reassembled to make a ball the size of the sun."

As a consequence of the Banach-Tarski paradox, a ball the size of a pea can be partitioned (not really "cut") into a finite number of pieces which can be reassembled into a ball the size of the sun, but a simple outer measure argument implies that the number of pieces must be very large (I roughly estimate at least $10^{30}$). The number 5 probably comes from the fact that the basic Banach-Tarski paradox is that a ball of radius 1 can be partitioned into 5 pieces which can be reassembled into two disjoint balls of radius 1. (It can almost, but not quite, be done with four pieces; one of the five pieces can be taken to be a single point.)

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Since points do not touch, this was an objection to the set theoretic view of the geometric continuum as a set of points, for example by Veronese. A decent account of this can be found in Debates about infinity in mathematics around 1890: The Cantor-Veronese controversy, its origins and its outcome, by Detlef Laugwitz. –  Andres Caicedo Dec 2 '13 at 23:22

That Darboux functions are continuous is certainly a widely held belief among students, at least in France where it is induced by the way continuity is taught in high school.

I remember having gone through all the five "stages of grief" when shaken from this false belief with the $sin(1/x)$ example : denial, anger ( "then the definition of continuity must be wrong ! Let's change it !), bargaining ("Ok, but a Darboux function must surely be continuous except at exceptional points. Let's prove that..."), depression (when shown a nowhere continuous Darboux function), acceptance ("Hey guys, you really think the intermediate value theoem has a converse ? C'mon, you're smarter than that...")

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Let $(X,\tau)$ be a topological space. The false belief is: "Every sequence $(x_n)$ in $X$ with an accumulation point $a\in X$ has a subsequence that converges to $a$". I subscribed to this intuitively until I stumbled over a counterexample, see http://dominiczypen.wordpress.com/2014/10/13/accumulation-without-converging-subsequence/

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I just realized yesterday that, given $A \to C, B \to C$ in an abelian category, the kernel of $A \oplus B \to C$ is not the direct sum of the kernels of $A \to C, B \to C$.

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protected by François G. Dorais Oct 15 '13 at 2:34

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