(subtitled: “How to avoid making a fool of yourself on national television”)
I really just wanted to kill some brain cells while straightening up the living room the evening. I certainly had no intention of blogging tonight. But then I saw something so stupid, I couldn’t let it go. And then it got worse. When I first heard about the concept behind “1 vs. 100,” I thought it sounded novel and fun. But that was before I felt like throwing a brick at my screen. Tonight, I found a true sign of the Apocalypse in the things Americans know and don’t know. The NBC television network has succeeded in creating a show that unlike Jeopardy doesn’t make you smarter; it just makes you feel smarter. (Apparently, years of finding new ways to wince at home video crotch shots has taken a toll on Bob Saget.)
Let’s start with the question that literally turned my head when I heard it:
How many six-packs of beer would you need to have 99 bottles of beer on the wall?
Not only was the question beyond simple, look at the multiple choice answers:
- More than 15
- Exactly 15
- Less than 15
I could understand the hesitation if you were concerned about rounding or fractions, but give me a break! Now, listen to the contestant reason this out. “Well, I know that 10 six-packs would be 60… and 20 six-packs would be 120… but I really don’t know. I don’t drink beer.“
Okay… a little more context. I’ve been working with my four-year-old daughter on basic math. She can already count to 70 and maybe beyond by now. We do simple addition, and we’re already up to the Commutative Property of Addition (2 + 4 is the same as 4 + 2.) I’m fairly certain that somewhere one of you out there has a copy of a 1st-grade math primer, with that law firmly stated on the first four pages. My four-year-old little princess gets it. She also understands that 2 + 4 will always equal 6, whether you are counting Barbie dolls, ponies, or tiaras.
Now, we get to the really sad part. Of the 70 members of the mob still alive at that point, 20 missed the beer question. More than 28%. Of the fifty remaining after that, only four could not identify Matthew Broderick’s wife as the star of Sex and the City. (You didn’t have to remember her name, even.) Later, 36 out of 38 correctly identified “Screech” as a character on Saved by the Bell. So — why does “99 divided by 6″ provide so much trouble? It’s the problem of too much information.
Extra details can get in the way of processing information. You can ponder the nature of beer until the end of time, but it has nothing to do with the path to the solution. Test makers rely on questions like these to ferret out an activity that typically doesn’t lend itself to multiple choice formats: critical thinking.
The application of a formula is fairly easy and brainless if one knows they have all of the relevant inputs, and nothing more. The next level of proficiency is to be given the proper information, but require the calculation of derivative information before plugging in the formula. Finally — you provide a wealth of information, and see if the subject can see the true nature of the problem, weeding out the extraneous. Call it a trick question if you’d like, but if you get stuck on “beer,” you’ve got issues.
In a perfect world, we’d make a priority of critical thinking and reasoning, and equip people with the tools to not only answer their own questions, but to ask their own questions to begin with. Failing that, the best we can do as communicators is to be cognizant of keeping the message simple. Give people too many facts, and they no longer remember what you want them to.
So, what happens when you strip away all tangible references, and give them nothing but pure unadulterated theory? You create a new problem, as depicted in another NBC primetime game show, which will star in my next post…
[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR, Mathematics, Pop culture, NBC, 1 vs 100, Communcations, Game Shows[/tags]