Friday, 22 July 2016

The 'great' Dumbing Down Debate

Here's a funny thing. In Thursday night's quiz we were asked the question - whose BBCTV show has been accused of dumbing down recently. Now, leaving aside the fact that I think there's more than one answer to the question, I hadn't heard the answer, but as I said to my teammates - chances are it's University Challenge, because that's always being accused of dumbing down. Indeed, UC was the answer.

I may not have written about them on the blog - well, there's no may not about it, I didn't - but I watched the first two shows myself, and I didn't notice any dumbing down in the questions, and my play along at home scores for both were just a shade over my first round target, which is 40 questions answered correctly, were pretty much spot on what I was getting in previous series.

The production team and Jeremy Paxman have refuted the claims, as they have rightly done every time this rather silly accusation rears its ugly head, which seems to happen quite regularly. Why make the accusation in the first place? I have a few ideas: -

* The claim might be artificial, and started by an unnamed source close to the programme in order to start a little bit of controversy, and maybe gain some more viewers in the process. Unlikely IMHO.

* UC is a popular show amongst a very particular audience - students, academics, educated middle class bradsheet readers - so a story about UC is something with appeal to this audience. Hence the decision to say something - anything about UC. I think back to the nothing story we had last year about a contender wearing a leather vest as an example of the lengths that the papers will go to in order to find something - anything - to write about the show.

* The British public as a whole have a rather unlovely trait of wanting to pull down any conspicuous displays of intelligence. As a society I sometimes think that we are deeply insecure about our own intelligence, and we seek to allay this insecurity by telling others we fear may be smarter than we are - look, see, you're not so smart as you think you are. This is just my opinion of course, and you must by all means feel free to disagree, but it seems to me that it's only in things which are connected with knowledge and/or intelligence that this happens. Let me give you an example: - a few years ago Usain Bolt ran the 100m in less than 9.58 seconds. I don't recall anybody hailing his achievement with - well, they must have made the track a bit shorter for him.

Personally I have had experience of the whole dumbing down thing. Way back in the 2007 SOBM of Mastermind, in my first round heat one of my fellow contenders, Stacey Mitchell, offered the Life and Career of Jennifeer Aniston as her specialist subject. The usual suspects in the media didn't like that one little bit. Ths one round was singled out for criticism - the other three being The Life and career of Henry Ford, German Wine, and The Life and Work of Frida Kahlo. Alright, Henry Ford lived a lot longer than Jennifer Aniston has lived so far, but I wouldn't mind betting that as a subject it still demanded the same amount of research and preparation. To read the comments of the journalists who wrote about it though, you'd have thought that Stacey was somehow trying to pull a fast one, and that the show was somehow allowing a subject which made it too easy for the contender. Journalists who I doubt had ever tried learning such a specialist subject themselves. (Yes, I do remember that journalist Richard Heller has twice been a Mastermind finalist, but then he is a special case. I've never seen him suggest that the show is dumbing down either,)


Desiree said...

Yeah, Only Connect gets these comments every series, usually allied to other comments saying it's got ridiculously harder at the same time.

Dan said...

The "Mastermind has dumbed down - just look at those specialist subjects" accusation just shows a lack of understanding of what sort of test Mastermind really sets. It's not about intelligence per se, but the ability to digest a body of material, extract the pertinent facts and then recall them under pressure. It doesn't really matter what the subject is - it could be the works of Plato, or the Kardashians - the game is the same. If anything, intelligence comes in choosing a subject that lends itself well to whatever approach gets the highest score.

The general knowledge is probably a better test of intelligence, but only as a proxy for curiosity, memory and - again - the ability to think fast under pressure. I suspect people think of it as "intelligent" because in the past it was important to be able to remember such bare facts. However, the world is changing, and with increasing access to online information when you need the answer to something, the real show of intelligence is in being able to ask the right questions. Not sure how you'd replicate that in an entertaining quiz format, although Only Connect probably comes the closest - certainly some of the smartest people I know have won OC.

My two pennorth there, for what it's worth.

Jack said...

As far as I'm concerned, there is nothing wrong with going for, what some might call, 'more lowbrow' subjects on Mastermind if you have a good enough knowledge of it. Surely, the point of Mastermind is to take a specialist subject that you feel confident that you can have a good go of. And if that subject just happens to be something 'more lowbrow', then so be it; go for it.

As for UC, it's natural that the questions should start off moderately difficult and get harder as the rounds go on. I think we need to wait until at least the second round or QFs before any 'dumbing down' comments can be justifiably made. If they can be justifiably made.

Londinius said...

"certainly some of the smartest people I know have won OC."
Some quite good ones have come second in it too!

Dan said...

I'm not even smart enough to have been cast ...

Unknown said...

In the case of OC, I think it's also affected by the fact that difficulty tends to ramp up over the series, so the first episodes of a new series really *are* significantly easier than those from the finals of the previous one - but that's not a sign of dumbing down, just a sign of how the series is paced.