Giving 110 percent

Photo by Cameron Lee
Photo by Cameron Lee

When it comes to television detectives, I’m a bit old school, so my favorite is still Peter Falk’s Columbo (“Do you have a first name?” he was once asked; “Lieutenant,” he replied).  But if I had to choose a runner-up, it would probably be Tony Shalhoub’s ever-anxious and quirky Adrian Monk.

In one of my favorite scenes, Monk has gone undercover as the assistant coach of a high school basketball team.  “Go out there, and give it 110 percent!” the coach exhorts.  This agitates Monk, who knows that it’s mathematically impossible; he tries to convince the players to give 100 percent instead.  When that fails, he resorts to a compromise.  Turning to one player, he says, “Okay, then you give 110 percent,” and turning to another, he says, “And you give 90 percent.”

Chill, we might tell poor Monk.  It’s just a metaphor.  But in some ways, he’s right; as suggested in an earlier post on “numeracy,” we should take care with how we use numbers.

My wife and I have enjoyed watching Junior MasterChef Australia, indeed, much more than its American counterpart.  The judges are more likeable, and more solicitous toward the kids; the kids are friendlier toward each other, and more polite overall, without sacrificing any of the exuberance and emotion that makes the competition so much fun to watch.  And the format is better: because they use a point system, some of the more excellent individual young cooks aren’t eliminated in one go because they happened to be on the team that lost a challenge.

But for all that, I admit I had one complaint about the final episode of Season 1 (and unfortunately, they only produced two seasons total).  Spoiler alert: if you plan to watch it (episodes can be found on YouTube), you might want to stop reading now.

The finalists, Jack and Isabella, were pitted against each other in two head-to-head challenges worth 50 points apiece.  The person with the highest score out of 100 would be crowned the winner.  Entering the final challenge, in which the contestants had to replicate an incredibly complex dessert created by a visiting chef, Jack was behind on points, 41 to 47.  The judges privately tasted and rated Isabella’s dessert first, then Jack’s, before coming out to announce the results.

One by one, the judges called out their scores, beginning with Jack’s.  He was elated when the first two judges each gave him 10 out of 10.  Then something unprecedented happened: the remaining judges each gave him 11 points, saying that his dish was actually better than the original.  The pressure was on; Isabella would now need 48 points to win.

Not to worry.  The judges scored her with perfect 10s across the board, and the final score was 97 to 94.

All in all, I believe the right person won, and for all the drama, I don’t think her victory was ever really in doubt.  But what does it mean to say that Jack scored “11 out of 10,” or indeed, “53 out of 50” in the last challenge?  Was the final score 97/100 to 94/100, or 97/100 to 94 out of a possible 105?

I get it; this is television.  With two well-matched contestants, six points is a decent lead going into a 50-point contest; the leader would have to make a significant error to lose.  And the last thing the producers want is a ho-hum and anticlimactic finish.

But I suspect that part of what happened was this.  The judges scored Isabella’s dessert first, and found no fault with it; in their minds, it was perfect, and deserved a perfect score.  At that point, the competition was already over; ultimately, there was no reason to even score Jack’s dessert.  But they tasted it, and actually liked it better.  What to do?  They scored him 11 out of a “possible” 10, knowing that it made no difference to the outcome anyway, and that it would make the final revelation more interesting.

I know, I know — at this point, some will accuse me of just being persnickety.  And like I said, it made no practical difference that the judges did this.  But from a numeracy standpoint, the issue is that from the first judging to the second, the standard changed, like measuring something with a rubber ruler.

You can’t do better than perfect, unless you change the standard of perfection.  Imagine the outcry, the accusations of favoritism and corruption, if Olympic judges did this!  The consistency of standards is supposed to represent at least some degree of objectivity and fairness, which is crucial to judging a competition, whether we’re talking about the Olympics, or MasterChef, or even just the grades doled out in school.

So let’s be clear and consistent about how we use numbers to rate and evaluate; let’s go out there and give it 100%.

And not a percent more.