Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Nothing to do with the Fringe, but this story irritates me enough to deserve a few words.

From the Independent:-
Mastermind has long been regarded as one of the most testing quiz shows on British television, with its darkened studio, dazzling spotlight and intimidating black leather chair.
But this week, the BBC2 programme was facing accusations of dumbing down, after it allowed one of its contestants to choose the Friends actress Jennifer Aniston as a specialist subject.

There's a similar why-oh-why story in the Telegraph.

There are two points to note about this, and the various other articles.

First, "facing accusations" from whom? The Independent doesn't identify any accuser at all. The Telegraph has a brief quote from Nick Seaton, chairman of the "Campaign for Real Education", whatever that may be, but the context suggests that he was phoned up for a quote. Is this, by any chance, an attention-grabbing press release from the BBC purporting to respond to a complaint that nobody has actually made? My non-story alarm bells are ringing wildly.

Second, regardless of where the story came from, it's obvious that the papers are happy to buy into the underlying assumption that questions about classical Greek literature are "hard" and questions about Jennifer Aniston are "easy."

Not so. The specialist subject round in Mastermind has never been anything more than a memory test on basic facts. It doesn't really call for a thorough understanding of the subject, or the ability to construct an argument, or anything really constructive. (That's not to say that previous contestants haven't had these qualities, merely that the show doesn't require them to be displayed.) It's essentially a rote memory test which examines your depth of knowledge on a narrow field of your own choice. That memory task doesn't become any easier simply because the subject happens to be trivial. Nor does it become any more impressive simply because the subject sounds a bit academic.

The questions on Mastermind really aren't that hard, if you know the subject. They're supposed to be questions that you could answer immediately. They're not exam questions.

What's most interesting about these stories, and the Daily Mail-style wailing that they provoke, is the extent to which people can be fooled into believing that they're witnessing serious academic thought, merely because somebody is demonstrating a relatively superficial knowledge of an academic subject. In a way, it parallels the comic-book trend that I like to call the Millar-Meltzer Fallacy. ("Rape is an important issue. My story mentions rape. Therefore my story deals with an important issue.") Of course some subjects are more difficult and worthwhile than others - but not at the level of a memory-test quiz show. Difficulty in Mastermind is determined by the breadth of the subject and the level of the questions, not by any other inherent property of the subject itself. Jennifer Aniston's had a longer career than some classical poets or artists, and nobody would question their choice as subject matter.

Knowledge is not insight. Facts are not arguments. And the belief that cleverness lies in rote learning of the classics is a debased notion of intelligence. A dumbed down version, if you prefer.