Let me offer my heartiest congratulations to the students from Raffles Girls’ School, Raffles Institution and Bukit Panjang Government High School who were the finalists in the National Science Challenge 2010.
The concluding round was aired over Mediacorp’s Channel 5 on Wednesday night, 11 August. Raffles Institution won, but this takes nothing away from the other two teams, for I thought they did very well too, demonstrating a grasp of scientific facts and concepts way above their fifteen or sixteen years.
I have to admit I sort of rooted for Bukit Panjang High since they are not commonly regarded as an elite school by the English-speaking, but it’s just me; I instinctively root for the underdog.
Mediacorp’s production left me feeling a little shortchanged however. There was a section where the teams had to solve, behind the scenes, a problem relating to genomes, and then present their thoughts and findings to the judges after a fixed time interval inside a room. The broadcaster did not include any footage of their presentations; only the judges’ comments, which made little sense to the audience since we never got to hear their presentations.
Perhaps Mediacorp didn’t think that the average viewer would understand genome-talk even by teenagers, and so didn’t bother to show their presentations, but surely there are people out there who would? This is the kind of dumbing down that mass-broadcasting stands guilty of.
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The most fascinating section was the final, rapid-fire bit. The show host, who was overdressed, with too much glitter more suited to the getai stage than a science quiz, would read off short questions and the teams had to press a buzzer as quickly as possible if they thought they knew the answer. Then they had about 5 seconds to articulate it. If I remember correctly, a right answer would win them 3 points, a wrong answer would lose them 1 point (in other words, -1 points). They could also play a “Eureka card” before answering, in which a right answer would yield them 5 points, but a wrong answer would cost -3 points.
Each school was represented by only three of their five contestants. Thus, there were 3 boys from Raffles Institution and 3 girls from Raffles Girls’ School. Bukit Panjang’s overall team comprised one girl and four boys, but for the rapid-fire round, the school was represented by 3 boys.
Raffles Institution took this round with a runaway score. As far as I can remember, Raffles Girls’ School did not even press the buzzer once for any of the 20 – 30 questions.
What was fascinating to me was not the science, but the strategy and psychology.
It looked to me that Raffles Institution had the winning strategy. Most times, they would hit the buzzer even before the question was completely read out. By doing so, they blocked the other teams from the chance of answering. Then they had 5 seconds to themselves to think and give an answer. This strategy works only when one is confident of being able to answer a significant number of questions correctly, and indeed from their performance, they showed that they had impressive breadth of knowledge — so, all credit to them. But they didn’t get all the questions right.
However, since a right answer scored them more points than they would lose with a wrong answer, they needed only to get one in four questions right to break even points-wise. Hence, it was worthwhile grabbing all the questions for themselves to try at.
Bukit Panjang High hit the buzzer a few times, and like Raffles Institution, got some answers right, some answers wrong. They too had a net gain of points.
It looked to me that Raffles Institution had thought through this gaming strategy before the contest while the other teams had not.
I suspect there is also a gender bias. Females in their social psychology are generally a bit more collegial than males. It is easier for one boy in a team to stretch out his hand without consulting the other boys and slam the buzzer. Sticking out, shooting away individualistically from the group, is a little harder for females. Females may also be a wee bit more risk-averse than males. That split-second hesitation makes all the difference and may account for the fact that the girls from Raffles Girls’ School never once got to the buzzer as fast as any of the boys’ teams.
That said, it wasn’t all just a matter of gaming. The questions were tough and the boys deserve praise for every single question they got right.
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So why do I say that the tough quiz was an easy thing to do? Because it was easy for Mediacorp.
Science is mostly apolitical. It would be a lot more complicated if the idea was to have a social studies quiz. Many aspects of social studies segue into sensitive or controversial subjects, and in Singapore, the difficulties are magnified by the political conformity demanded of schools and media. Moreover, it could be argued that in social studies, there are far fewer clearcut right/wrong answers as science has — though such a statement betrays much misunderstanding of the scientific process.
Nonetheless, I think we are all poorer for it. To have a televised quiz for the hard sciences without an equivalent one for the soft sciences has two effects:
- through the engineered acclaim for hard science winners, we create a value differential between the hard sciences and the soft sciences;
- through focussing on right/wrong answers that typify a hard science quiz, we promote the idea too broadly that the right/wrong binary is the standard or correct approach to any question.
The latter is actually very detrimental to intelligent thinking. The fact is, when it comes to knowledge, we’re always swimming in a soup of relativity and incomplete data; this is true even when it comes to scientific knowledge. The ability to deal critically with the relative and the incomplete is what makes intelligence. It is those who cannot function under these conditions and must cling to absolutes, who ultimately do not understand the world.
Alas, there are too many of them around us.