Paul McDermott hosts the ABC quiz show Think Tank.
Paul McDermott hosts the ABC quiz show Think Tank.

Our game show question shame

THE other night I was watching the ABC and I suddenly realised the human race was doomed.

It wasn't a Four Corners episode about climate change, it wasn't a Foreign Correspondent episode about the Middle East and it wasn't even a Q&A episode about, well, anything.

It was the new 6pm quiz show Think Tank, hosted by Paul McDermott - or at least whatever parts of him you can still see.

Now, to be fair, I am convinced the human race is doomed at least once a day - usually in the part of it just after the morning antidepressant has worn off but just before the evening beer has kicked in. And, to be even more fair, this time of day is generally 6pm.

But nonetheless this should have been a happy occasion. After all, I love quiz shows and I love Paul McDermott. What could possibly go wrong?

As it turned out, pretty much everything.

Firstly, the whole premise of the show is so mentally crippling that it is enough to plunge you into chronic depression before the cameras even roll.

The idea is that you have a huge panel of experts assembled in the studio. You then get a contestant and ask them a question. But before the contestant has to answer, the experts each tell them what they think the answer is. The contestant then picks the answer they think is most likely to be correct.

The most positive possible spin on this process is that the ABC has basically invented an ingeniously inefficient and tortuously slow live action version of Google that only works for one person, one hour a day.

The negative part is that every possible outcome in this scenario is proof not only of how dumb we have become but that we are no longer even expected to be anything but dumb.

The contestant is not expected to know the answer, the contestant is not expected even to be smart. The contestant is merely expected to repeat the answer of the person they figure is most smarter than them.

And if you think that is the very definition of low expectations then even those expectations are about to be lowered.

Because all the experts' answers are beamed on a screen in front of them so the contestant can actually see which is the most popular; at worst they will perhaps have to count up to five.

Yes, this new highbrow intellectual quiz show is Family Feud but with the player already knowing what the survey says.

Yes, even televised tests of knowledge have now been reduced to handing out participation medals. We now have a prime time version of pass-the-parcel in which everybody gets a prize.

But even that isn't the most depressing part. Because sometimes even that isn't enough to get our poor bubble-wrapped contestant over the line.

Yes, even when presented with a clear majority of right answers from our tirelessly long-suffering brains trust, the contestant still manages to get it wrong.

And, unfortunately for human civilisation, this was the night I just happened to be watching.

There was a basic question and at least half the experts presented the correct answer; no other response came close.

Yet even this wasn't enough for our poor contender. Still our wily civilian wasn't convinced.

And even that, dear reader, even that is still not the most depressing part. No, the most amazingly, confoundingly, head-bashingly depressing part is that the contestant actually said they didn't know what the answer was.

Let me repeat: They actually said they didn't know what the answer was but added they didn't think it was what all the experts said it was.

They then plucked some random answer out of the air and of course it was wrong. The correct answer was, believe it or not, what all the experts had said it was. And then, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, God help us all, they were surprised!

It was at this point that you could actually see the light go out in Paul McDermott's eyes. It was as though he left his body and tried to flee the building only to realise all the doors were locked.

Given this is the downfall of human civilisation, let me repeat the scenario once more: A team of experts told a person trying to win on a quiz show the answer they needed to win and, despite having no other answer, the person simply ignored them.

Or let me play it out for you:

Experts: "This is the answer."

Player: "I don't think it's the answer."

Paul McDermott: "So what do you think is the answer?"

Player: "I'm not sure."

To put this in an historical context, it is as if NASA Mission Control had told Neil Armstrong in 1969: "OK Commander, we've finished the final calculations and we're ready to go to the moon."

And Neil Armstrong had replied: "Actually I don't think so. My favourite colour is mango."

At any rate, the contestant then gave their answer, it was obviously wrong, and the remainder of Paul McDermott's soul crawled off to die in a stairwell.

That, my friends, is the worm in the bottle: On the supposedly smartest television network in Australia, they get a supposedly smart person to be told be told by a bunch of smarter people what the answer to a question is and they're still too dumb to get it right.

And it was hence precisely at that point I realised we were all going to die - not individually and eventually but all at once and very soon.

The problem is that civilisation has always depended upon someone smart being in charge - not all the time but just before it's too late. The Roman Empire, which is the foundation stone of the legal, political and social system we now take for granted, was constantly governed by madmen, morons and monsters. Yet at the moments when it really counted, when it was on the verge of an existential collapse, somehow fate saw fit to throw forward a human being who was smart enough to hold the whole thing together until the crisis subsided.

This person typically had to rise above incalculable odds, conquer several countries, start a civil war and win over an institutionally retarded ruling class just to get anything done. Yet our current class of elites can't even answer a question correctly when the answer to the question is given to them.

In other words, we're stuffed.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that today's ruling class has merely swapped inbred landed gentry for mediocre middle managers, both of whom are punctuated only by humourless morons on the far left and right who mouth off slogans and platitudes that mean nothing and achieve even less.

One notable example is Pauline Hanson's sudden decision to backflip on her deal with the government to support company tax cuts, citing as her reasons a number of perceived slights that occurred only in her imagination.

One Nation senator Pauline Hanson backflipped on her pledged support for the Turnbull Government’s business tax cuts this week. Picture: Aaron Francis/The Australian
One Nation senator Pauline Hanson backflipped on her pledged support for the Turnbull Government’s business tax cuts this week. Picture: Aaron Francis/The Australian

Hanson then replaced this hallucinogenic internal monologue with a laundry list of demands that are impossible for the government to meet, largely because they are a raggedy grab bag of thought bubbles that can be best described as random One Nation word association.

Say what you like about the government's company tax policy, at least some thought went into it. And even if you think virtually no thought did, it is now being held hostage to a bunch of ideas that are even less well thought out.

In other words, even if the policy is dumb, the only way it can pass now is if the government makes it dumber.

Welcome to 21st century politics.

And of course it doesn't end at Australia's borders. Right now we have the most powerful country in the world moving heaven and earth to placate the most dysfunctional country in the world. And why? Because that country is so dangerously idiotic that nobody knows the depths of dumbness to which it might stoop. North Korea's power lies entirely in its ability to be limitlessly irrational and the whole world is bending to it. What a blueprint for other rogue regimes to follow.

Precisely the same thing thwarted US efforts to end the Syrian civil war, which has now led to the greatest humanitarian disaster since World War II. At first the US thought it could help pro-democracy forces overthrow the Assad regime by arming them to the hilt. But as fast as they could give the rebels the weapons they were seized by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda-linked extremists in their ranks.

And so the supply was cut and Assad's once battered forces regained their ascendancy and he now looks assured to tighten his stranglehold on his nation. Yes, these extremists are so moronic they managed to actually stop themselves from winning a war and yet their stupidity delivered precisely the result they wanted - an excuse for endless murder. IS is so utterly insane that it has perfected a deadly form of accidental double-edged dumbness, where the more you mess things up, the more it works out for you.

But the truth is this is just the ultimate result of the first law of dumbness, which is that the dumber things become the more it benefits the dumb.

And of course we have also seen dumb sentiment sweep in new governments or disable established ones in liberal democracies all over the world. The usual names hardly need repeating - Donald Trump, Brexit and whatever the hell is happening in Rome these days - as well as moderate populists like French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Meanwhile, at home not a single incumbent prime minister has survived a full term in more than a decade and one-term state governments have gone from being an aberration to the norm. Impatience and ignorance have always gone together.

Yet, incredibly, the response from the political establishment has almost never been to engage with, empathise with or attempt to educate the people behind these sweeping changes. Instead the default position is first to dismiss them, then to sneer at them and finally - when that doesn't work - to pander to them. And so our political elites have become just as dumb as the dumbest among us. The only difference is they don't have any excuse.

President Donald Trump speaks about North Korea in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Picture: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump speaks about North Korea in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Picture: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, once the very model of a pragmatic rationalist, went from dismissing Donald Trump as "barking mad" to adopting his policies. Talk about a Trans Pacific Partnership! And now Shorten and One Nation have the same company tax policy as well, having both reversed their positions. That's how you know you're on a winner!

And of course the Labor Party is far from alone in this. Tony Abbott has held more positions in the past five years than a Tantric yoga instructor while Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull seems afraid of holding any position at all for fear of getting his hands dirty.

And that fear is the same fear that has haunted all politicians since the dawn of civilisation: the fear of the mob, the mindless seething mass most political elites rarely encounter and almost never understand.

So now they don't even bother trying. They just throw anything they have at the mob in the hope that it will leave them unmolested, in much the same way that a trembling businessman might offer a mugger his watch.

And now even the quiz shows aren't safe. Our very tests of knowledge reward us for not knowing anything and instead just say: "Here's the answer, now just please take the money and go."

Because it turns out that it's not really the stupid people we have to worry about. It's not even the stupid people who think they're smart. It's the smart ones who pretend to be stupid because they'd rather make their house a better place than make the world one.

That's when you know the human race is doomed - or at least the few of us who aren't too dumb to see it.

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