A memo to the sticklers

In high school, I coached the school quiz bowl team. We made it to the finals. The last question was to name the first man-made satellite. Our team buzzed in and said "Sputnik" to win the city championships. Of course, we didn’t win, because the host said we were wrong. The right answer, he said, was "Sputnik 1".

Playing Trivial Pursuit years later with family, the question to win the game was, "What is the official color worn during the world Ping Pong championships?" My team argued back and forth between black and brown and finally picked black. "No," we were told. "The right answer is ‘dark’."

And on a recent math test, the challenge for students to answer each question to the nearest tenth. Question five was something like, "what is 10.2 plus 1.8?" Answering "12" would cost you a point, apparently, because the correct answer is 12.0.


Please understand that I have no problem at all with precision. Precision is great, it’s essential to engineering and to the function of many elements of society. It’s almost impossible to be on time without precision, and quality depends on it. But when we reward people for senseless precision (and punish them randomly for not guessing what we actually meant when we asked a question) then all we’re doing is muddying the waters about what matters and what doesn’t. Is there a difference between the Dow falling 107.4 points and it falling nearly 1%? If not, don’t try to wow me with needless precision please.

This baseless precision fetish has infected all of the soft arts, of course. Now, we reward students far more for following specific instructions for an essay and not nearly enough for saying something original, powerful or useful.

I want precision where it matters, but only there. And dark is not a color.