The other day, I got around to listening to This American Life‘s “Quiz Show” episode. In round III, Robin Epstein talks about writing questions for the show Plugged In  on the Oxygen network. As the TAL description says, “Robin had hoped that the show could serve as a role model for young women, showing smart teen girls answering tough questions. But in the end, it sort of did the opposite.”

Let’s leave aside the dubious idea that a TV quiz show is going to give smart young women self esteem. (“I Was a Teenage Ken Jennings,” anyone?) After listening to the segment, I had two major reactions:

1) It’s really annoying when people assume that “ability to answer trivia questions” is the same as being smart. There’s a correlation, of course — Jennings strikes me as a pretty smart guy — but Einstein or Shakespeare could fail Millionaire on the first question and still qualify as Pretty Smart Guys themselves.

2)  It’s interesting that Epstein decided that teen girls just aren’t that smart, when the other possible explanation is that she just wasn’t that good at writing good game show questions. The examples given on the show don’t have many internal clues or alternate ways for people to figure out the answer: they’re either you know it or you don’t. Rather than changing the kind of questions from “What failed presidential candidate lost the use of his right arm in WWII?” to “How many cute boys’ signatures can you get on your arm in 15 seconds”, it might have been better to add some hints. “What failed presidential candidate, who shares a name with a pineapple canning company, lost the use of his right arm in WWII?”