Jeopardy Kills Baby Grad Students


Or: How pop culture got intelligence wrong and misjuged the value of information.

Ok, I should explain the sensationalistic title. “Baby grad students” refers to anyone who may have a future in academia. Despite their poor science and mathematics questions, I have nothing against Jeopardy … and mostly nothing against babies. I do have a problem with the anti-intellectualism/anti-rationalism in the media, but this is not the purpose of this post. What I really want to talk about is the undervaluation of creativity in what people think of as ‘intelligence.’

“I’ll take ‘Grad student infanticide’ for $200, Alex.”

Why Grad Students Suck at Jeopardy

Among the many witty and not-so-witty t-shirts regularly being sold on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue is a quote from Einstein:

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

This not news for any graduate student. A grad student’s job is to create new knowledge, not to accumulate old knowledge. This creation of knowledge may entail figuring out a clever way to take a measurement, pushing novel interpretations, developing a new technique, or otherwise do something that has never been done before. The universal tool in this research is creativity; the ability to attack current problems with clever approaches distinguishes the great academics from the good ones. Unfortunately, with out-of-the-box characters like the smart-alec professor, pop culture seems to have this mixed up with one’s ability to win a game of trivial pursuit. (Maybe this is why we have so many unimaginative television shows.)

For example, it’s pretty worthless to know by heart the current consensus of the top quark mass (Higgs VEV divided by root 2). Any particle physicist would have that information available in their back pocket. It’s a little better to understand the Higgs mechanism by which the top acquires this mass. But, besides being standard in texts, this is something that can be learned in an evening. It is much better to build upon this and have an understanding (if only partial and speculative) of the the hierarchies associated with the Higgs, something that is still an open ended question. In t-shirt compatible form, academia isn’t about what we know, it’s about what we don’t.

Successful academics are very good at teaching themselves what they need to know, that’s a prerequisite rather than a cause of their success.

Wikipedia: The Walmart of Information

Maybe I shouldn’t have said that knowing the top mass by heart is ‘worthless.’ Factual information has value.

If you were the second grader who checked his zipper after someone told said your “epidermis is showing,” then you already know about the value of information. In elementary school, knowing stuff was the key to making clever jokes and teasing those who didn’t get them. And, if you’re as ‘old’ as I am, elementary school was also when services like Prodigy, Compuserve, and AOL came to life.

The world changed between the last days of index card-based dewey decimal library catalogs and the birth of Google. It became dramatically easier to get the information you’re looking for. You no longer need to own a book or hope that your library owns it, you can google it.

In short, the cost of information dropped like it was 1929.

In 1984, Stewart Brand coined one of the Internet’s first aphorisms when he said:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

(Emphasis mine, this is the bit that people remember.)

The intrinsic value of information is the ability to use it to make decisions, for example:

  • Are you going to pack an umbrella?
  • Is it fair to interpret a poem in a given context?
  • Is it likely that the Higgs is finely tuned?
  • Does a ‘hostile’ country have WMDs?

The perceived value of information, on the other hand, factors in its rarity i.e. “I know something you don’t know [and would have to work hard to find out on your own].” While the intrinsic value has remained constant, the perceived value has changed in light of the ‘democratization’ of information by the Internet.

The Seigenthaler-Wikipedia debacle of November 2005 made evident the brave new world of the information age. A libellious and factually incorrect article about John Steigenthaler that was anonymously posted suggested he was involved with the assassination of John Kennedy, causing a small uproar when it was clear that Wikipedia cold not be held legally responsible and that little legal recourse was possible. (I cavalierly assume that anyone reading this blog is familiar with Wikipedia and will not discuss its unique contributions to the digital age.)

A month later, Nature magazine published a report comparing the accuracy of science articles in Wikipedia versus the encyclopedia Britannica. They found that the difference in accuracy was minimal (Wikipedia averaging four inaccuracies per article to Britannica’s three), largely vindicating Wikipedia as a source of information and rightfully increasing the use of referencing in its articles.

These days Wikipedia continues to grow in its breadth and depth of knowledge. Outdoing even the greatest library book sales, Wikipedia has made information dirt cheap. (Future “killer apps” such as Google Book Search further galvanize the trend.)

Trivializing Trivia

Factual information that’s readily available is a commodity. It’s easy to find and hence, while not being completely worthless, is of little value. (Factual information that is not readily available, such as the identity of dark matter, is a different story.) Because information has become so radically easy to acquire (i.e. is “cheap”), we must adjust anachronistic valuation schemes of information.

It’s no longer impressive that someone can list off world capitals, recite Planck’s constant, tell you the value of the Dow Jones, or even tie a bow tie. Ten or twenty years ago these were things that required some research or special source of information. It meant something that your buddy won the geography bee, or had a physics textbook or the day’s business section, or dressed up frequently; because then your buddy could answer your questions without you having to find that information yourself. Now all of that information is available at one’s figertips and, frankly, it’s no longer so fancy that someone knows these things.

Despite all this, a decade later the epidermis joke is still funny. That’s because the Internet hasn’t made information that cheap. Barring the idea of children carrying blackberries around in school, the kid who doesn’t know what ‘epidermis’ means is still going to get teased. This, at the end of the day, is what trivia games like Jeopardy or Quiz Bowl are: a competition of how much information you carry with you independent of external sources.

My point is that this is no longer a meaningful thing compete for. That is to say, Ken Jennings gets tagged as a heck of a smart guy by the media, but I’m not granting him that level of praise until he develops a cure for cancer, solves a Clay millenium problem, or otherwise does something with all the random junk he’s remembered. That being said, trivia is fine for the recreational activity that it is, but don’t get it confused with learning.

“Non-Trivial” Education

It’s a terrible shame when people do get this mixed up. I’ve met people like this at Stanford. They notice how technology has made information cheap, but instead of using the information, they hoard it, believing (in a pre-Internet paradigm) that they’ve bettered themselves for it.

The real value of information is its ability to generate new ideas. Because information is cheap, the value of “just knowing stuff” is (pardon the pun) trivial. Real learning occurs and new knowledge is created when one is able to use this information: to devise new models, to draw new conclusions (or challenge old ones), to solve problems that were previously intractable. The catalyst is creativity.

The problem is that primary education in the United States didn’t seem to get this memo. With the emphasis on testing and standards (and standardized testing), it’s easy to forget about creativity and problem solving. Traditional academic contests such as the spelling bee, geography tournament, and the various quiz-type competitions are all based on rote memorization. When will these kids ever again need to be able to recite memorized facts?

One of the most horrifying things I heard at Stanford was somebody talking about a student-led course specializing in quiz trivia. One of the lessons, apparently, was that the answer to any art question about mobiles is “Alexander Calder.” While this is likely to be shrewed advice, there are few things more disheartening than hearing someone speak with confidence about Calder without actually ever having seen any of his mobiles. What’s the point of knowing something if you don’t get anything from it?

Further, it’s even more disheartening when Stanford grads, even some economics majors, can define sunk cost without a second thought, but can’t apply it to their everyday lives (it shows up more often than you’d expect). What’s the point of learning anything if one can’t use that information? Or, viewed differently, has one learned anything if one can’t use it?

While it is true that there is some minimum cache of information that students must commit to memory (spelling, grammar, multiplication, and integrals for which the solution can be expressed as gamma functions…), the goal of primary and secondary education should be developing creative critical thinking that will develop the skills necessary for today’s high-tech service-based economy.

For what it’s worth, this is why I gave up on piano lessons as a kid (rote learning without understanding music) and why an education in theoretical physics is actually surprisingly applicable in the real world.

As a final note, I’d like to repeat one of my favorite pieces of advice from my senior thesis advisor, Savas Dimopoulos (passed down to him from his advisor, Yoichiro Nambu):

Rule number one: Read as little as possible and try to figure things out by yourself.

References and Further Reading

  • The Economy of Ideas,” J. Barlow; Wired Magazine, Issue 2.03 (March 1994). A slightly idealistic article from the early years of the Internet.
  • Information Wants to be Free…,” R. Clarke (accessed 19 Aug 2006). A history of Stewart Brand’s quote.
  • A false Wikipedia ‘biography’,” J. Singenthaler, USA Today (29 November 2005). The editorial that brought national attention to the issue of information validity on the Internet. Ironically, Singenthaler fails to take his own article to heart by not properly citing when he accessed the Wikipedia article that included the incorrect statement he fought against.
  • Internet encyclopaedias go head to head,” J. Giles, Nature 438, 900-901 (15 December 2005) doi:10.1038/438900a. The study that made news in response to the Singenthaler incident.
  • Berkeley Quiz Bowl website. The 2006 NAQT national champions.
  • Stanford Quiz Bowl website. The 2006 NAQT division II winners, and home of 2006 College Jeopardy winner Nico Martinez.

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