Saturday, 8 October 2016

Mastermind: The General Knowledge debate

I've just received a lovely email from Keith Nickless - already through to the semi finals of the current series - expressing some views about the issue of whether the Mastermind General Knowledge rounds are easier in this series than they were previously. I've taken the liberty of sharing part of it with you: -

"I have noticed some comments about "dumbing down" of the questions in several places this year. When I was at the studio one contestant made an interesting observation, that it takes as much brain power to understand the machinations of a Coronation Street or Eastenders as it does The Odyssey but because soap operas are understood by the masses and not the elite they are seen as dumb.

That person went on to say that a persons general knowledge is based on the media they read or watch, if you listen to Radio 1 you will know who Mark Ronson is but may not understand the Booker prize. If you listen to a Radio 4 it could be the other way round.

I thought you may appreciate these comments and may like to pass them on to your readers."

This is the reply that I made about the points that Keith raises: -

"'Dumbing down' is not a phrase which I like, and I don't think that it is one that I have consciously used. It is true, and I have been quite open about this, that I do feel that the general knowledge rounds have been made easier in this season. This is not a criticism, implied or otherwise, about the individual contenders. You can only answer the questions that you are asked. But it is based upon my many years of watching the show, and several years of writing about it.

Forgive me if I have misunderstood your comments, but it seems to me that you are linking this to the highbrow/lowbrow debate - which if I might observe is a related but slightly different issue. I have no issue with highbrow/lowbrow/middlebrow questions being asked. In fact, Mastermind has always used a pretty wide range. It is not the subjects of the questions being asked with which I take issue, but the level. What I do think, and what I have said is that I believe that the questions have been in the general knowledge round more gentle than in previous years. Not because there are more 'lowbrow' questions, I hasten to add, but because a large number of questions being asked are what I feel that a person with a quite decent rather than good general knowledge should know, or should be able to guess.

Case in point - personally I think that the question - in which European capital city would you find Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports? - is too easy for a Mastermind General Knowledge round.
Another example - a recent question asked where in the body the masseter is. That's a fair and reasonably testing question. However the question went on to add that the word masseter comes from a Greek word meaning to chew. So what else could it possibly be than the jaw?

As you know, everything that I write is purely my own opinion. I always invite people to feel free to disagree with me, and to dismiss my opinion as rubbish - which it probably is. But I'm afraid that it is the way that I feel about it."

So basically - would anyone else like to express an opinion? Over to you.


Ian F said...

I'm sure when someone comes up with a General Theory of Quiz Questions, then establishing the relationship between cultural frames of reference will be key to it.

Perhaps a good contender should be able to make at least a reasonable guess on either Corrie or Homer, on Beethoven or Bowie. Personally, I don't think there should be a distinction between highbrow/lowbrow, as long as the subject has made enough impact to be 'general knowledge' rather than trivia. I'll take proper GK questions on anything (except sport, which is entirely trivia as far as I'm concerned).

Nevertheless, MM did build its reputation on being 'highbrow' and difficult. This was reinforced in the Magnus days when it was often filmed in University halls, with the senior faculty sitting in the front row of the audience in academic gowns.

Being on MM clearly takes a lot of preparation and it doesn't offer cash prizes, only the kudos of having attempted a difficult quiz. If the general knowledge Qs start to look on too much of a par with Tipping Point (which, in fairness, has solid basic quiz questions), then the kudos gets devalued somewhat.

Addy said...

Ah, the age-old question of "How much information to include in a question". I think it depends largely on demographics of the quiz - which admittedly will of course depend upon the attitude of the quizmaster in the first place, making this something of a chicken and egg question. Still, after a while of doing a quiz, the approximate age, ability, etc of the regular teams should become apparent. One of my quizmasters has outright stated to me that he writes his quizzes with the idea that the average individual should be able to get about half marks alone. That seems fair, and leads to 40-80% team scores (roughly).

The issues of highbrow questions and difficult ones are certainly separate; we all have different interests, and "easy" soap opera questions are anything but if one never watches such programmes. The highbrow issue has a lot of elitism surrounding it, I think, and in any case cultural changes will have an impact on it, as the new becomes mainstream. For example, video game questions might seem laughable these days, but as the industry grows and those of my own generation (I'm 30 this month) age, they may well become as normal as those on TV and film in decades to come.

Demographically, MM styles itself as the pinnacle of UK quizzing; as such, it is reasonable to expect that the difficulty of the questions will be appropriate - i.e. pretty darn high, especially in the later rounds. Its reputation for being high-brow doesn't matter to me, as long as it doesn't go too far in the other direction and become known as a pop-culture quiz (there's plenty of those on TV for fans of it). No matter the subjects, they should be hard enough to identify the true best competitors, and varied enough that those with a couple of specialist subjects and limited overall knowledge (be they arts, entertainment, film, whatever) cannot make it.

A standard way to weigh the difficulty is to consider the amount of information given in the question. In your above example of the masseter, that is far too much as it gives away the function of the body part. In fact, I'd go further and suggest that the full question is too easy for your average pub quiz - "Where would you find (body part)?" is a common question in itself, often given without clues or elaboration.

Consider this potential question: "Which 1877 novel by Anna Sewell was originally written to promote animal welfare?". In some form or other, this question has probably been asked on MM, but that version in itself has too much information for this show. After all, any quizzer worthy of being on the show should know the author of a novel like that. Take out the author, and it becomes more reasonable. The full thing might, however, work well in a standard pub quiz, where 19th century literature knowledge will generally be lower.

I do have to say I've been disappointed with the easy standard of the questions this year - it does devalue it if they're too easy, and I hope the producers don't pander too much to a perceived need for "accessibility"; there's plenty of quiz shows of more moderate difficulty, and I hope Mastermind maintains its reputation for toughness as the years ago on.

Gerald said...

Within a season, dumbing down of questions should only really be an issue if a lot of people are scoring full marks in GK, meaning that you can't differentiate between contestants, as the standard is too easy. Each contestant might get one or two questions that maybe considered a "gimme", but I haven't really seen anyone go through on what I've considered an easy GK round.

When looking at dumbing down between years, the only way to check would be to hold regular tournaments of champions...

I think the extra information might have been added just to make the question longer to read out, to ensure everyone gets more or less the same number of questions.

As a contestant in this year's series, I can't tell you how useful, and how much I've enjoyed this blog!