Saturday, February 14, 2009

Think about the Question!

A couple of game show moments recently drove home to me the importance of thinking about the question. It seems we too often ponder the answers, without first pondering the question and extracting whatever meaning we can from it.

Most recent example was a "Millionaire" question about which game led to the idea for creation of the Periodic Table of the elements. The contestant asked the audience, which went for chess for no apparent reason, chess having a 40% to 28% edge over the second-place finisher. Both the contestant and the audience were obviously pondering the answers without first pondering the question. If one first pictures the periodic table, and how elements are stacked one on top of another, the answer of solitaire becomes obvious. This was during teachers' week, making it doubly surprising that the contestant blew it. Even if you don't teach any science, just having seen the periodic table in other classrooms should be enough to lead one to the correct answer.

And this brings up a second point. After an ask the audience, Meredith is fond of saying, "that's a pretty good number", or "that's not a real good number", referring solely to the percent of the audience voting for the #1 answer. However, I maintain that just as important is the *gap* between the 1st and 2nd answers. For example, 40% isn't bad if the other three are 20-20-20, but if the other 3 are 30-20-10, then it sucks. I think Meredith leads the contestants astray by the way she focuses on the % of the #1 answer, to the exclusion of the total picture presented by the voting results.

The second example is a recent final jeopardy question, asking for which country allows no U.S. planes into its airspace except for those tracking hurricanes. Here again, all 3 contestants gave answers of countries on the other side of the world, where there are no hurricanes. They obviously did not think about the key word "hurricane" in the question. Asking oneself first where hurricanes occur, and then which country in that part of the world would be at odds with the U.S., leads one inexorably to Cuba as the right answer. My daughter can verify that I was shouting at the TV on this one.

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