This New York Times Story About Jeopardy Is A Perfect Example Of How Even Smart People Are Stupid

Also, I have some thoughts about masks and...mars?

There is a wonderful scene in Inglorious Basterds where the undercover allied GIs accidentally reveal that they are not German by signaling the number three wrong with their hands. The character signals to a bartender for three drinks by meeting his pinky to his thumb. The Nazi character goes “aha! In Germany we only signal the number three by folding in our pinky and our ring finger. You must not be German!”

I used to think that this scene was totally unbelievable. I had never thought about how I made the number three. If you had put a gun to my head and asked me how Americans as a rule do it, you’d have to pull the trigger. But in the film, the Nazi is so secure in his belief that there is one Germanic way of signaling three that he challenges the nationality of his nominal superior. There must be lots of people in Germany who make three in a way that this one dude does not. It’s a big country! What a psycho to be so certain that he and only he knows the way one can signal three innocently!

Apparently, I was wrong. People do indeed make whacky judgments like that! 

Ben Smith has a story in the New York Times about a recent Jeopardy kerfuffle. Some guy went on Jeopardy and won three days in a row. After the third win, he made a 3 with his fingers by touching his index finger to his thumb. Immediately some people who really need to go for a nice walk in the park and get some fresh air shouted, “Nazi! He’s a nazi! Secret nazi!”

A bunch of former Jeopardy contestants took to a private Facebook group and decided that they had to speak out against the secret nazi who had sullied the show they had once been contestants on by making a “three” in a sort of unorthodox way. In a fresh and frothy lather, the good townsfolk took to Medium to publish an open letter about how the man was a nazi, and Jeopardy producers are basically Vichy for not editing it out. 

“This is stupid,” people basically said. “It’s just the number three.”

“You fool,” the smart trivia contestants basically replied. “Forsooth, not only did the man do the 3 (nazi) he also got a question correct earlier in the show the answer to which was ‘gypsy.’ He said ‘gypsy’ on television!”

“But that was the correct answer to the question.”

“Oh so racism is correct?”

“That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying the question had one right answer and the man was playing a game and he had to say the right answer to win the question.”

“Have you seen little Eichmann’s Facebook page?”

“The guy who won the Jeopardy thing and you think is a Nazi? No, I have not seen his Facebook page.”

“There is a photo of him in a Maga hat! What do you say to that one brainiac?”

“I guess he’s probably a Republican? Doesn’t mean he’s a nazi.”

“Who’s being naive now, Kay?”

“I’m looking at his Facebook page and he has written a post explicitly saying that he was not trying to signal anything to white supremacists. He has responded to this rumor.”

“He’s a liar!”

And it went on like this, people talking past each other. But this ragtag group of eminent and intelligent Jeopardy contestants sent a copy of their letter to the Anti-Defamation League so that they could get some support from the racism authorities. 

Pray, the ADL came and what did they say?

“Thank you for reaching out regarding your concern over a Jeapardy [sic] contestant flashing what you believed to be a white power hand signal,” wrote Aaron Ahlquist, of the A.D.L., according to text posted to the group by the contestant who had emailed the group. “We have reviewed the tape and it looks like he is simply holding up three fingers when they say he is a three-time champion. We do not interpret his hand signal to be indicative of any ideology. However, we are grateful to you for raising your concern, and please do not hesitate to contact us in the future should the need arise.”

So that settles that right?

Of course not.

The ADL is in on the conspiracy.

“Is anyone else feeling gaslit?” asked one two-time champion, according to the screenshots. “We saw it. We know we did. But a lot of people (including the goddamned ADL) are telling us we didn’t. That’s some classic gaslighting.”

Ben’s whole story is great and really hits at something I think is important. These are smart people! They are smarter than me! They know facts about the seas and stuff! They are not popping Ambien in the daytime and listening to QAnon. (Well, maybe they’re popping some Ambien in the daytime.) But here they are, mad. Mad in the sense that they are angry but also mad in the sense that they are bonkers. 

There is this psychological thing called the third-person effect, which is that people tend to think that they are not as susceptible to dumb stuff as other people. They are somehow more sophisticated than the average Joe. They recognize the sophistry of something and believe they are thus immune from it. But of course, that’s nonsense. We’re all more susceptible than we like to believe. Everyone is…even the winner of the Daily Double. 

How does someone get here? How do they become a person who sees a person make a three sign and end up accusing the ADL of gaslighting? Well, it takes a village.

Start with something true: there is a small band of evil white nationalists who made the OK symbol a secret inside hate symbol. Insert a sensationalist media that then turns this into a trend in a way that gives the impression that just because some small bunch of Nazis wants a thing to have a certain meaning means it actually has that meaning in the broader world. When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way from your first cigarette to your last dying day. And when you snap your fingers at once, other Jets know. But sometimes other people just snap their fingers because. They aren’t Jets, they don’t smoke, and they’ll never die. Snapping the fingers is a necessary but not sufficient condition of being a Jet. However, they’re probably Jets, you tell yourself. Let this fester. Let it become an article of faith

You love Jeopardy. You have invested time and sweat and emotional energy into Jeopardy. You are not even, like so many unwashed viewers, a passive lover of Jeopardy. You have been on Jeopardy. Jeopardy is not The Simpsons. It is not Wheel of Fortune. It is not some flyby thing you watch on TV to fill the time. Jeopardy is you. Or at least Jeopardy is part of you, but more importantly, you are part of Jeopardy. You and people like you—you know you aren’t unique in this fact—have made Jeopardy what it is and it doesn’t matter if you are a producer on the show or not. You are the thing that makes Jeopardy Jeopardy. 

But you are other things as well. You have a moon sign. You have a career. You have hobbies. You are unique in your own ways. You never order the chicken on an airplane because you question the health standards. You know people rarely get food poisoning on flights but you still remember a time when standards were lower and you just aren’t ready to order the chicken. You have friends. You have a family. You derive from all of these things your self-esteem. At the same time, your self-esteem is impacted by the negatives. The things you don’t have. The promotion you didn’t get. The love that didn’t last. You think of these negatives more often than you’d care to admit. Some of them you attribute to circumstances beyond your control. The dot com bubble was what it was and you didn’t cause it but your career in day trading went belly-up with Worldcom. But some of them you know are attributed to you. When you were younger you were you but less. You were worse. You had less character. You had less courage. You once were on a train and were sitting next to someone and wanted to speak to them but didn’t. You were afraid. And then the train stopped and they got off and your life now is the result of that decision. Maybe if you’d said something, life would be different. As you have gotten older you have tried to improve. You have tried to improve both morally—you think of how you should be empathetic more—and how you perform—you think of how you have a greater work ethic. You never love yourself as much as you think other people must love themselves. Like they do in movies or in books. But these negatives, these moments of weakness, are something you can work on. The more you diminish them the higher your chances of success are and your self-esteem rises. You know this doesn’t mean you’re ever going to be the best thing in the world, but you hope and believe that through this improvement you can trust that when luck strikes and you’re dealt the right hand you will play it right. You will only fail because of the things outside of your control, and hell, what more can anyone ask for? 

You believe in your own story. You must believe that your life is a film and that like all heroes you will reach splendor through an act of personal strength, of willpower. You need to summon the courage to do something and that is how your character evolves. 

At the same time, my main man, you’re a good person. If you saw a tragedy happening you’d do something about it. You’d run into the burning building and do something. If you saw someone walking down the street in distress, you’d stop and say, “hey! Are you in distress?” And you’d do something. Because you’re a solid cat. 

Of course, there have been times when you have seen people in distress and continued driving. But they were drug addicts and you’ve heard studies that say that giving money to homeless drug addicts is not helpful. Those times that you drove past are not indicative of your desire to intervene when people are in distress, ok? It was the American monk Thomas Merton who prayed “the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.” And, buddy, you want to please. 

Particularly if it happened to someone close to you. If someone came to your nuclear family and kicked things around you’d jump up and do something about it. The world is bad and you can’t right every wrong but if someone comes into your house and hits your mother on the head with a tire iron, you’re going to say, “buddy, let’s step outside!”

And, look, you’re not going to risk your life for your third cousin Jeff or Jeff at the store. Or maybe you will but you won’t for Jeff at the store two towns over. Or the Jeff at the store in Bahrain. Because that’s an irrational ask. Still, you don’t want Jeff in Bahrain to be hit with a tire iron either, all things considered. And so if the ask is less you will do less. You are willing to tweet about Jeff in Bahrain. 

You are not like certain other people. Once not too long ago you read an article about people who didn’t appear to care one way or the other about Jeff in Bahrain or anyone in Bahrain or anywhere else for that matter. Nihilists! Real sick folk. Those people, according to the media, also don’t even cut apples the right way. They cut them differently. They cut them stupid. And they wear suits that don’t fit and they always look happy on television, which is the only time you see them. How can anyone be that happy in a world such as ours?

One day you’re minding your own business when you see some guy on Jeopardy make the number three—or was it three? You have Tivo so you rewind and look at it and it’s a three but also it is an OK sign. Maybe you’re the only one who noticed it. You open your laptop. You are not the only one who noticed it. Other people noticed it too. You and these other people justify each other’s worst interpretations of this act. Someone finds out he’s a Trump supporter and you’re off to the races. Suddenly the three goes from “a three that sort of looked like an OK sign” to “an OK sign.” You all obviously understand that an OK sign is a Nazi salute. Bru just hailed Hitler on your show and yet the busses are still running and the leaves are still turning and other people in the world are not talking about how insane it is that this dude just did this! 

Knock knock. Who is there? Opportunity. 

There is an existential fight happening in this country between good and evil and only on rare days do you mortal men and women have the chance to contribute to this glorious and final confrontation. Today, for you, is one of those days.

Then the reaction isn’t what you expect—the cowards at the ADL didn’t greet you as a liberator—but you’re too far gone and blah blah blah blah now you’re a whacko and your family is going to cut ties with you. The end.

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But honestly, the blowback to this insanity is inspiring and a good usage of the media. This kind of thinking is nuts and we are all subject to it and making everyone get that while also not accepting the premise of the lunatics is good! We need more New York Times stories about how even smart well-meaning people are dumb! 

MASKS

The CDC said last week that vaccinated people mostly don’t need to wear masks anymore. This is bad news for people deeply invested in the tribalism of the mask wars. We can see on the horizon a world in which the masks are worn by those who want to wear them and not by those who don’t and neither choice means much about who they are. But before that blessed day can dawn the mask wars are experiencing a dead cat bounce.

“Wearing a mask when it is not medically necessary is grotesque and unhuman, an attack on society itself,” Matt Walsh tweeted. “It feeds paranoia and fear. You are treating air like it is toxic and other humans like they are nothing but vessels of disease. It is disgraceful, arrogant, and offensive.”

This man is insane. This is the ranting of an insane man. As a general rule, you should not be offended by someone else’s personal sartorial choices.

In the earlier period of the pandemic, there was a real, important argument for wearing masks. A certain subsection of conservatives decided that it was an affront to their liberty and so decided to break the social contract and be idiots about it. Bad!

Some liberals went too far in their scolding of people for perceived non-compliance. This had many different versions. On the one hand, the NextDoor in Brooklyn Heights was filled with wealthy well-to-do white people complaining about the essential worker they saw temporarily removing their mask to have a cigarette on their break. On the other, you had the very regrettable era when everyone was hunting for photos of teens at the beach or unmasked sunbathers in Central Park. This definitely contributed to making masks part of the culture war.

Even now, on the Left, there is a contingent of “I feel the need to continue wearing my mask outside even though I’m fully vaccinated because the inconvenience of having to wear a mask is more than worth it to have people not think I’m a conservative.” That isn’t me paraphrasing. That’s a copy and paste quote.

And that’s dumb! But the right-wing version is even stupider. For one thing, the right-wing “no mask” stuff had actual real-world consequences that hampered the efforts to bring COVID to heel. But even putting that in the past, the current version—the “I am offended by your choice to wear a mask” version—is entirely based on the idea that people should curtail the liberty of other people. Not super conservative?

Wear a mask, don’t wear a mask (if you’re fully vaccinated). It’s no sweat off anyone else’s back. Live and let live!

MARS

The culture war is coming to Mars but not in the way you think.

The traditional fight about Mars is this: Some people think it’s a waste of money that we should use to make life better here now on the Earth that exists. Other people think we should go to Mars because we can learn stuff and make progress in the long-term project of broadening humanity beyond the Earth.

Apparently, there is a third group of people who are worried that if we go to Mars it would be very unfair to Mars.

Critics suggest that, in space, we risk repeating the mistakes of the colonial past, in which exploration was often a cover for the exploitation of native beings and environment.

There are no native beings on Mars.

 “It has to be about being part of Mars, as opposed to making Mars part of us,” Hilding Neilson, a Canadian astronomer, told The New Yorker.

Mars is an uninhabited rock. It isn’t ours at the moment because we aren’t there. But once we get there it will be ours. We will build Starbucks on Mars and we will build The Limited Too on Mars and Mars will be better for it because, again, right now it is just a rock.

If we colonize Mars and then in a few thousand years some aliens show up and say that they were just out to run errands then I think they should have standing in court to sue us for damages. I do not think this is likely. 

I asked [Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical particle physicist and cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire] the question that I’d been contemplating: “Is Mars ours?” “Obviously, my answer to that is no,” she said, laughing. “Like, is the Earth ours?

Yes, the Earth is ours. This is the premise of every film about alien invasions. 

“I’m sitting here looking at the trees on the land behind my house. I depend on that photosynthesis, the entire exchange of taking in carbon and making it easier for me to breathe. So does the Earth belong to me or the trees?” She worried about the disregard that humans can have for things that aren’t human; in some indigenous societies, she said, land is considered a family member. “If we think about Mars as family, what do we want for our Mars family? I think we need to learn a different way of being in relation with each other.”

Why would we treat Mars as family? This is either a very weird way of treating planets or a very weird way of treating families.

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Are you still reading this? If you are, let me ask you a question. What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?

Interpret this question however you want. I think you’re an expert on your life and that you have an interesting memory of someone giving you advice that you came to cherish. Email me and tell me! I am going to round them up and do a post with the best answers.

Xoxo and down with the nazis,

Ben