Good Questions

As much as I use CNBC as the poster child for All That Is Wrong with: (1) the 24-hour news cycle; (2) financial journalism, or more accurately, financial journal-tainment; and (3) the way business and finance engage in public discourse – I have to admit that it’s a necessary evil to watch “Squawk Box” most mornings.  It delivers a pretty reliable and quick summary of top stories, including sports scores (which is a key for feigning interest in small talk during baseball season, if I haven’t watched SportsCenter recently).  And, as Pat Kiernan’s In The Papers segment is the crown jewel of the NY1 morning program, the Aflac Trivia Question (which seems to pop up between 7:25-7:30am) is both a nice way to acquire or remember a fun fact and a helpful prompt to get my butt off the couch once it’s over.

This morning’s Aflac Trivia Question was: “John Wayne never scored a touchdown while playing for what university’s football team?” 

I’ll provide the ‘correct’ answer at the end of this post, but because I am a smart ass, my first answer would have been: “All universities.”  It is unlikely that John Wayne attended more than one university, and the question implies that he didn’t score a touchdown while at the university he attended.  Therefore, there does not exist a university where John Wayne scored a touchdown while playing on its football team.

Of course, my ruse would fail if John Wayne actually scored a touchdown at the University X he attended, in which case the answer would be “All universities but X” – and this would be a very tricky way of accessing the piece of knowledge that the question presumably wanted to test (i.e., where did John Wayne go to university – although, fun fact, he didn’t graduate)?

The question could have been even more interesting if John Wayne had played football while attending both Harvard and Yale (say, because he transferred to the superior instiution in New Haven after his sophomore year) and scored a touchdown only during his Yale football career.  In that case, John Wayne never scored a touchdown while playing for any university besides Yale; but we might feel compelled to point out that he actually played football at Harvard, and so our attempt to be a smart ass might pull us in two different directions (in each case, revealing that we know at least one university that John Wayne attended and at which he played football).

Clearly the question implicitly applies the condition that  John Wayne actually have attended and played football at the university under consideration.  My point is simply that it’s really, really important to ask questions about our questions.  This is a much more complicated discussion than I intend to indulge here, but I think it’s a huge philosophical (and practical!) problem when a test ceases to measure comprehension or aptitude unambiguously, and confounds them with the ability to divine the intentions of the questioner (i.e., knowing to reject my smart-ass answers to the trivia question, even though I’d have given brownie points to a student with the chutzpah to point out such a flaw on a test I gave).

I’m good at taking tests.  I’m pretty convinced I could pass most multiple choice tests, no matter how specialized the knowledge, if I had a couple of practice tests that I could use to study patterns, and maybe a few weeks to cram definitions and un-fakeable facts.  This isn’t a matter of genius or aptitude; it’s just one skill among many I have, although it happens to correlate positively with very valuable signals (e.g., high SAT scores).  It clearly can be practiced – witness the test prep industry that inspires ordinarily well-meaning, liberal-leaning, at-least-moderately-affluent parents to throw up the walls of privilege to get access to another edge over kids who can’t afford the same services.  (Actually, I think it should be mandatory to disclose to the College Board whether you have paid for test preparation services, but that is another polemic for another time.)

Because I’m good at taking tests, my default assumption is that it is the responsibility of the person receiving a question to give the correct answer.  It’s helpful to be reminded that there’s a corresponding burden on the questioner to make sure the query is unambiguous and that it will accurately elicit the information or verify the competency that is its intention.

P.S. To do some justice to CNBC for a change, I’ll make two brief observations.  First, I think some of their “CNBC Investigates” longform pieces (or whatever the analogue of longform journalism is, in television) have been solid, particularly the ones that chronicle the growth of enterprises like McDonald’s, or that acknowledge the real economic activity (and innovation) that goes on in illegal trades(illegal forms of gambling, drugs, etc.)  Second, I think Becky Quick is by far one of the most competent anchors on business television, mostly because she actually knows how to moderate discussions between speakers as opposed to constantly inserting her views in the form of leading questions (i.e., Joe Kernan) or, even worse, whining uncontrollably when a commentator points out that this is actually what she is doing (i.e., Erin Burnett – great clip to show how low financial journalism can go).

P.P.S.  It’s USC.  Fight on, Trojans!

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