The Solution Lies in Jeopardy
“The show has become part of the fabric of American life. . . . Even if you are learning facts that you are not going to be able to use in your daily life, . . . the fact itself just enriches you as a human being and broadens your outlook on life and makes you a more understanding and better person.”
Alex Trebek, Host of Jeopardy! And author of The Answer Is . . . .
“It is the task of a Jeopardy! researcher to never rest easy on previously found facts; the team lives by a ‘no rubber stamping’ mantra.”
“What It Takes to be a Jeopardy! Researcher”
Truth or Consequences on Trial
Our nation’s solemn courtroom custom for swearing in witnesses appears to be nearing obsolescence.
“Do you swear,” bailiffs ask witnesses, “that the evidence you shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”
In 2020, this is starting to present itself as a trick question.
No value, notion, quality, idea, or concept is in shakier condition than the truth. Distortions, data disputes, lies, hoaxes, fake news, conspiracy theory, and mass-produced disinformation crowd the world, pushing honesty, accuracy, and a consensus on facts to the edge of a distant cliff.
Under these circumstances, if asked to swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” a completely honest person might well feel compelled to answer, “I’ll have to get back to you that.”
Has the time has come to rewrite the oath?
Do you swear that the evidence you give will be in some imaginable relationship to the truth or will be, at the least, an approximation of what a good share of the American people who are not overcome with bitterness and resentment might find convincing?
Your honor, motion to adjourn until the court can come up with an oath that makes sense in these strange times.
There is, after all, a lot at stake with this oath. As every encounter in a courtroom makes clear, whatever stance we take toward truth, there is no escape from the consequences of that stance. The phrase really should be “truth and consequences,” unless you are referring to the game show or the town named in its honor.
The Solution Lies in Jeopardy!
In 2020, parties of every possible political persuasion claim to own the truth.
But nobody owns the solution or resolution to this unending contestation.
Or that’s what I thought until just a few days ago.
A week ago, when I settled on this topic for “Not My First Rodeo,” I had a complete “Mother Hubbard” experience. When I looked in the cupboard for a remedy for the troubles of truth, there was absolutely nothing there. I could not begin to think how we will ever find people who could rescue truth from its state of siege.
I might have been stuck in this gloomy state of mind if a good-natured public figure hadn’t come down with a mortal illness.
Stricken with pancreatic cancer, Alex Trebek, the host of the quiz show Jeopardy!, wrote an autobiography. A good share of The Answer Is . . . Reflections on My Life is an immersion in the backstory of the show he has hosted for thirty-six years. Reading this book ended my sad reenactment of Old Mother Hubbard contemplating an empty cupboard.
I had good reasons to read Trebek’s book. The most compelling reason was that I spent a good share of my childhood watching quiz shows. Though the ridiculous burdens of a career brought a halt to that custom long before Trebek appeared on the scene, as a kid, I was devoted to Jeopardy! (as well as, I admit, to Truth or Consequences).
Back then, quiz shows were daytime programs, so most of my “screen time” was confined to the summer. And yet, during the school year, staying home sick permitted me what we would now recognize as a form of “online education,” delivered in the congenial format of hosts trying to stump contestants, and contestants refusing to be stumped. I won’t try to draw a direct line of causation, but it seems very likely that my state of enchantment when watching these quiz shows, and seeing people have fun with knowledge, played a part in the career choices I made later in the game (so to speak).
In the late 1950’s, I somehow missed the fact that quiz shows were facing scandals at the very time that I was moving into the role of fan. And even now, rather than disavow my fanhood of the 1950s, I would make a counterclaim. Quiz shows acquired their greatest value to society precisely becausetheir operations were exposed for bad behavior. The people who created and produced this form of entertainment simply had to disavow fraud and clean up their practices if they were going to regain credibility and survive. The history of quiz shows thus goes on record as a hybrid of cautionary tale and inspirational tale: how to scorn truth and honesty, but also how to change course for a better form of conduct.
In his book, Alex Trebek is quick to give credit to the writers and researchers at Jeopardy! He refers to them as his “Great Colleagues” who “can take a mundane fact and make it very entertaining,” while never departing from accuracy. A particularly attractive feature of his job has been that he can always “turn to our crack of team of researchers.” And their work won and holds onto the loyalty, affection, and affiliation of millions of Americans. Trebek cites a telling example: the Jeopardy! custom of phrasing the contestant’s answer as a question has become, Trebek notes, “part of Americana. It’s something people recognize immediately.”
And now back to our question: how to relieve the embattled state of truth in our nation today?
Reading Trebek’s tributes to the Jeopardy! staff, I got it: The writers, researchers, and judges at Jeopardy! are the champions and practitioners of truth who I have been yearning to find.
The researchers, I learned on the show’s website, are assigned to “confirm that every bit of information in 14,000 clues prepared for each season is verified and double-sourced.” With a shared character trait to warm a professor’s heart, every member of the team must have “a passion for knowledge.” Since “facts [are] at the core of the game, sources are crucial to a Jeopardy! researcher,” making every practitioner aware that “you need to make sure your source – even your source’s source – is correct.”
To win, a contestant on a quiz show has to give the right response to the clue, and the “rightness” of that response must withstand the test of verification and confirmation by researchers and judges. If the writers, researchers, judges, and hosts of quiz shows with wide public followings were to slide downhill into an erratic relationship to truth and accuracy, this would unleash a widespread wave of dismay and disillusionment. If a pattern developed where contestants could win by giving responses that were factually wrong, the credibility of the show would plummet and might prove impossible to regain. And so, with a very strong sense of truth and its consequences, and with hard-wired memories of the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, people working at Jeopardy! are immunized against a casual and cavalier attitude toward accuracy and fact.
The people who work at Jeopardy! are, of course, a tiny sector of the national population. And yet, thanks to the popularity of the show, they are a group who carry an unusual degree of cultural power and, thereby, consequence.
So now, presented to the world for the first time, here is a plan for turning our worries over the unprotected status of truth into productive action: We must join together to demand that our national elected officials adopt the principles and practices of our quiz show researchers and hosts. Perhaps this could be aided by having Alex Trebek, who is facing mortality and making the most of his remaining time on earth, host interventions where Jeopardy! staffers instruct denizens of Congress and the White House how to conduct themselves in the company of truth. These interventions will be opened and closed with each federal official reciting, at least ten times, the wonderful statement made by Jeopardy! researcher Margaret Choi: “I can’t call it a fact until it’s verified.”
But here’s the only problem with this plan: it asks too much of the Jeopardy! staff who already have very demanding jobs.
Is there anyone else we can enlist to this cause?
Is there ever!
What I had learned about the professional commitments of Alex Trebek’s co-workers suddenly merged with what I had learned from several months of attempting to be a good homeowner. In other words, I became aware of a spectacular quality of this nation’s population that I had not noticed, even though it had long been right before my eyes.
Here’s what I finally saw.
Devotion to truth drives and guide the practices of thousands of Americans who we encounter in everyday life and who we already trust.
I repeat the point: wherever we look, we can see sectors of society where people are demonstrating a steady allegiance to truth and accuracy, generating an enormous national resource of insights and capabilities that await mobilization on behalf of the nation’s well-being.
Stay with me for just a little longer, and I will reveal the identity of the vast numbers of people who are constantly on a quest for truth and accuracy, and quick to direct their actions by the results of that quest.
But for now, we already have acquired sufficient reason for cheer: we know that Alex Trebek is a very visible and influential American at the moment. The time has come to lionize Jeopardy’s! writers, researchers, and judges and to celebrate their service as truth’s champions, advocates, and defenders. Even more important, given this good-hearted man’s state of health, this is the moment to grab Alex Trebek’s coattails and travel in his slipstream.
Why This Matters—The Bedrock
Currently, we have arranged ourselves as a fractured, divided, antagonistic, embittered bunch of citizens who are very reluctant to trust those with whom we disagree.
And so this is a safe prediction: pretty soon, our nation’s survival as a democratic republic is going to require the success of many brave initiatives in major-league, all-in reconciliation.
One of the areas in which our contemporary disagreement peaks is in the zone of contesting claims about historical truth, especially the accuracy of claims about the centrality of slavery and conquest in the nation’s past.
Thankfully, a number of other nations have set an example for us by creating Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. In our own country, some admirable and energetic historians are working to make it possible for the United States to follow that example.
But look at the words in the name of those commissions.
“Truth” comes before “Reconciliation.”
How will Americans ever be able to participate in Truth and Reconciliation Commissions if the matter that is most in need of “reconciliation” is our capacity to recognize and agree on “truth”?
We will make no progress on reconciliation until we make some progress on truth.
Who among Us Could Get Truth on a Better Footing?
Let’s say that we have only a very limited amount of time (which might actually be the case!) to find a sizable number of people—much bigger than the number of writers, researchers, and judges at Jeopardy!—to persuade Americans to adopt a shared understanding of how to arrive at a consensus on truth and accuracy.
Where could we look —fast!—to find these people?
Remember, we are looking for people who we trust and who are personally gifted and occupationally skilled at distinguishing accurate statements from inaccurate statements and at separating truth from falsehood, error, or misapprehension. Let’s add one further criterion or qualification: when they have themselves made an inaccurate assumption, the people we are seeking must be able to recognize their error quickly and to correct it fast, without wasting a moment on injured pride or stubborn defensiveness.
A moment’s despair may be in order.
How will we ever find people like this? And how could we possibly find a sufficient number of them to get our troubled society back on track?
Time now to dismiss that despair.
These people exist in vast numbers, and they are everywhere we look. I can say this with authority because, in the last months, a parade of these people has come to my home to demonstrate their talents and capacities.
How could that possibly be true?
The people who came to my home were people who fix things. In the last months, they fixed the front door lock, the plumbing in two sinks, the air conditioning, and the overgrown tree that was getting ready to fall over and maybe hit the roof.
The intellectual methods that they used to fix these things rested on their very comfortable and familiar relationship to accuracy and truth. As they worked on the various problems that my house and property placed before them, these people were forever asking themselves, (particularly in observing the results of their own actions), “Did I get this right?” If the answer came back (from the lock, sinks, air conditioning system, or tree), “No, you got this wrong,” then these people responded—not by pitching into a contentious debate over the meaning of truth—but by instantly designing and executing a correction of the error.
If these people are so effectively fixing locks, sinks, air conditioning, and tree branches (and this is only the start of the long list of the things that they can fix), they may just as well undertake just a little more exertion and fix our nation’s problem with truth.
Look in any part of the country and you will find millions of people who work in professions and occupations where they must be constantly attuned to truth and accuracy. In fact, in these enterprises, the difference between a successful practitioner and a failed practitioner is exactly that: the insistence on the presence truth and accuracy, or the acceptance of their absence.
Add in professionals like pilots, carpenters, surveyors, electricians, a wide range of mechanics, and providers of electronic and digital tech support, etc., etc., and at in any given moment of the day, thousands of professionals are either getting it right or initially getting it wrong and instantly moving to correct it.
They are not exercising wisdom so rare that none of the rest of us could mimic it. They are paying attention and making things work. They know that yielding to the temptation to avoid truth will yield unhappy consequences; things won’t get fixed. And, by the same token, they know that the choice of truth over misapprehension stands a good chance of leading to rewarding consequences. And—this is very important—they are setting an example that is as pragmatic and down-to-earth as it is inspirational and uplifting.
So we have arrived at a clear course of action, ready for adoption by our truth-troubled nation. Let’s move fast to recognize, reflect on, and mobilize the capabilities of these people who, in everyday life, detect error and mistake and move fast to replace them with truth and accuracy. Let’s seize every opportunity to talk with these folks and to learn how they operate their minds and orchestrate their thinking. How does information come together to let them know that they have gotten something wrong, and how do they take this in without drama or agitation? And how do they design and execute a plan to correct their course when they see that they need to get better aligned with truth and accuracy?
And then, with gratitude and respect, and with full inclusion of the merriment and hilarity that often enters the picture when common sense comes to the aid of truth, let’s apply the lessons we have acquired from these folks to the heated disputes over truth that are now rattling our world.
Do I swear that the ideas that I have presented here convey the convictions that I genuinely hold, and that the premises, from which these ideas arise, rest on –to the best of my knowledge—the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
I do. So help me God.
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References to include on the Jeopardy! researchers
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