Tough quiz an easy thing to do

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

21 Responses to “Tough quiz an easy thing to do”

  1. 1 ilcourtilcourt 12 August 2010 at 18:02

    A proper quizz would actually give at least as many negative points for a wrong answer as positive points for the right answer.
    The way the quizz was setup would of course give the advantage to brute force.

  2. 2 Chezz 12 August 2010 at 22:18

    Hi…..just so you realise, the photos that you took are from last year’s website. 😀

    I suppose the oraganisers really hadn’t updated the page in a long time……

  3. 4 stngiam 12 August 2010 at 22:49

    > It looked to me that Raffles Institution had thought through this > gaming strategy before the contest while the other teams had not.

    heh heh… Now that you’ve let the cat out of the bag, I can confirm that the RI team has been using that strategy for longer than all the contestants have been alive.

  4. 5 yawningbread 12 August 2010 at 23:28

    Chezz – thanks so much for pointing it out. I was wondering as I uploaded the original pictures, why none of the kids looked familiar. Yes, I got the pictures from Mediacorp’s program website… which means that Mediacorp had not updated it!
    Anyway, I found a picture of the winning team from Raffles Institution in today’s TODAY newspaper and replaced all the old pictures with it. I wish I also have pics of the RGS and BPGHS teams; they deserve to be featured as well.

  5. 6 yawningbread 12 August 2010 at 23:45

    stngiam – you mean, in all these years, nobody else figured out the strategy? In all these years, nobody else, observing RI, saw the strategy at work?????

  6. 7 Anonymous 13 August 2010 at 15:33

    I wonder if selection in certain girls’ schools is still weighted more by popularity rather than by ability. Your gender bias may be something

  7. 8 Selwyn 13 August 2010 at 15:55

    Long ago, the participants in the girls’ team would be selected by a mysterious process of teenage popularity rather than scientific knowledge. I wonder if it is still the same now…

    And yes, a proper test should be designed against brute force/guessing strategies.

  8. 9 David 13 August 2010 at 15:59

    Winning all these quizzes is quite pointless, by the way. I can’t believe my taxpayer dollars went to this.

    The only serious place to do science is not in Singapore or even in the organization representing this contest; it is in the United States and European universities. These talented kids are just drops of water in a vast untalented pool of third rate hires. Reducing the number of PR permits to third-string Chinese university PhDs and increasing salaries for better researchers is more constructive for Singapore than all the gameshows in the world.

  9. 10 yawningbread 13 August 2010 at 16:33

    Native Singaporeans can be very creative. Every topic can be made to serve an anti-immigration discourse.

    • 11 KT 13 August 2010 at 20:30

      The anti-immigration discourse seen on forums such as those of The Straits Times and Yahoo Singapore is really the government’s astroturfing. The comments are so banal and the English so appalling that no one with a modicum of self-respect would join in the discussion. This is the government’s way of preventing like-minded Singaporeans (with some trace of intelligence) from congregating on the Internet. All that noise, and oftentimes obscenities, just drowns any comment that may be half intelligent.

      If you think it’s just my conspiracy theory, look at
      the English of the anti-immigration and anti-government commentators. Who are they? If their English is really that bad, chances are they are low-income blue collar workers who are too busy earning a living to make so many hate comments on the Internet. Those commentators are not real people! The real ones write like those on blogs such as yours and Mr Wang’s.

      • 12 rojakgirl 15 August 2010 at 15:50

        I agree. They could even be posting comments under multiple identities. And the quality of the news articles at Yahoo or even ST are even worse than Temasek Review’s(formerly known as Wayang Party which btw, is far too sensationalist for my tastes but oh well). It’s also easy for anyone to type in Singlish, doesn’t require a degree to do so. Hell, even Wee Shu Min was able to use it.

        Oh and the comments might not just be anti-government but also, anti-middle class and so on. Sometimes, they’re written to not just provoke but antagonize helpless sods who know they can’t vote. Probably serves as a helpful stick for reminding the masses who’s in charge.

        Try try this blog post for example:

        Some very creepy comments in there.

        Or even Lucky Tan’s blog whose entries are often invaded by highly provocative comments designed to test his emotions and make him “trip”. I really admire Lucky for being able to withstand all that vitriol without losing it.

        I would not try to report any of those posters, though because they’re like cockroaches. And also because they might decide to start changing tactics and become even more difficult to deal with. Like spamming Alex’s blog until it’s awashed with nonsense.

      • 13 twasher 15 August 2010 at 22:08

        Comments on YouTube videos are pretty terrible as well, even those from non-Singaporeans. Are those the astroturfing of other organisations as well?

  10. 14 KiWeTO 13 August 2010 at 23:55

    Just more evidence of the still existent bias for hard sciences & math and nothing left for the soft arts that “cannot make money”?


  11. 15 Wax 14 August 2010 at 13:11

    You may like to know that the RGS participants often receive much less support in prep though the teachers do help; not sure about how much training the RI lot get.

  12. 16 Wax 14 August 2010 at 13:14

    And no, contrary to some suggestions here, the girls were chosen based on merit. Perhaps the suggesters should review their own biases.

  13. 17 Robert L 15 August 2010 at 13:26

    My comments are for only the “Rapid-fire” part of YB’s essay.

    Reading through the description of the proceedings, I would hazard a guess that when RI presses the buzzer even before the question was read out completely, the show host would continue reading out the rest of the question. This is grossly wrong, the correct procedure is that the team that pressed the buzzer must annunciate the correct answer without the rest of the question being provided.

    Perhaps YB could clarify whether I’ve guessed correctly?

  14. 18 Chezz 15 August 2010 at 14:20


    Yes, the host will probably stop reading the question once the team has buzzed in.

    However, the question will still remain on the screen (there is a screen in the actual filming theatre that shows the question).

    Thus, the team can still look at the question on the screen and reply within the next 5 seconds or so.

  15. 19 yawningbread 15 August 2010 at 23:18

    Robert L – The questions were flashed on the TV screen and I’m almost sure it was also flashed onto a screen that the contestants could see. The announcer continued reading the question even after the buzzer sounded.

  16. 20 AaronSZJ 5 September 2010 at 23:27

    I just found your post recently and I just want to say that as a part of the Bukit Panjang NSC team(I’m the one at the side with spectacles), I would like to correct you. Most teams have thought up the RI strategy that they had shown during the finals. However, it was considered taboo in my school cuz if you did not get the first few questions right, then your morale would be shot and you would hesitate more for the other questions. If you recall watching the NSC semi-finals, RI had done the same strategy. However they blatantly said I DON’T KNOW for the questions they did not know. Although it was a legit tactic, it was considered unfair and un-sporting as it stole the chances of the other teams to answer. If I heard correctly, Mediacorp sent a warning letter to RI regarding the tactic. I applaud RI for being rave enough to try it again during the finals but I feel a bit sore as we had lost by a whopping 33 points and felt the buzzing system was a bit unfair.

  17. 21 yawningbread 7 September 2010 at 16:07

    AaronSZJ – Thank you for your clarification. You guys shouldn’t feel sore. I was mightily impressed by your team’s performance, and as they’d say in sports, it’s not always the winning, but how one has played that counts.

    So congratulations all around, and if you guys have a pic of yourselves, I’d be glad to post it up here – your fifteen minutes of fame?

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