Mindless art of the fact junkies

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHAT were Screaming Lord Sutch, the Tiller Girls and the Mayor of Wrexham doing at a fish-and-chip shop in central London yesterday, and why were Jaffa cakes, beetroot and broccoli on the menu?

If you have even the faintest idea of the answer to that question, or the remotest interest in knowing it, you are probably a fan of Trivial Pursuit, the game that celebrated its 10th anniversary yesterday and whose answers dictated the guest list and menu. In the past decade, Trivial Pursuit has sold more than 50 million games, spread to 30 different countries, and spawned the phenomenon of pub quizzes which in this country involve three million participants a year.

Trivial Pursuit has also been responsible for inflicting the most excruciatingly boring afternoon of my life. We were playing something called, I think, the 'Baby Boomer' edition, in which all the questions appeared to demand detailed knowledge of the pop industry in the United States in the years around 1970. During the whole game my team answered only one question correctly (Gore Vidal somehow managed to slip in as an answer in the geography section).

As an avid collector and purveyor of trivial information (did you know that intoxicated ants always fall over on their right side, or that all polar bears are left-handed?) I should have enjoyed Trivial Pursuit; but instead I found it deeply disturbing. It was not losing that made me hate it so much, but something in the nature of the questions and, more particularly, of the people who knew the answers to them.

For the game has cheapened the art of trivia by unleashing a new and frightening species of the common nerd, more tedious than the train spotter, more stultifying than the stamp collector. Society faces the spreading menace of men (there is no such thing as a female nerd) who spend their evenings learning all the answers by rote, just so they can win at Trivial Pursuit.

There are two classic theories of the way human beings develop knowledge and understanding. The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget advocated a theory of 'cognitive structures' formed by our experiences and constantly being transformed into increasingly sophisticated levels of intelligence. Erich Fromm went further by arguing that knowledge and understanding are not merely tools at the disposal of our intellect, but the very essence of our being. You are what you think.

Both theories reject utterly the idea that incremental additions to knowledge can be useful. If a fact is to be glorified as knowledge, it must change the person who acquires it. Learning a string of disjointed facts is learning nothing at all.

Enter the common nerd. Trivial Pursuit, through little fault of its own, has provided an outlet for these minds obsessed with the senseless accumulation of facts.

Which brings us to bad trivia and good trivia. Some junk facts, such as knowing which rugby player opened the 1991 Boat Show, or who was the guest on the 1,000th edition of Wogan, score zero on the scale of mental nutrition (Will Carling and Madonna, in that order, if you're interested). Other trivia is potentially stimulating if looked at with a mind that is prepared to be stimulated.

The drunken ants and left-handed polar bears, for instance, must tell us something about the differences between the cerebral hemispheres and the effect of alcohol on the brain. Even knowing which television family appeared on Mongolian postage stamps last year might be interesting when viewed in the context of the cultural and philatelic history of that country (it was, of course, the Flintstones). But there is no value in knowing these facts without being interested in fitting them into a framework of knowledge. The trivial pursuers, who collect facts for their own sake, will grow up conceptually deprived. They epitomise everything that is wrong with bad educational methods.

Recently, a team from the Independent was challenged by a champion pub-quiz team. Our erudition was no match for the encyclopaedia-memorising, fact-absorbing qualities of our opponents. My one moment of satisfaction came in correctly naming James Callaghan as the tallest prime minister this century.

But I should not have felt happy at knowing it. For most of the questions one encounters in a pub quiz or Trivial Pursuit are exactly the sort of thing an educated person should take pride in not knowing at all. A significant part of intelligence lies in the ability to recognise what is important and forget the rest.

Far from wishing Trivial Pursuit a happy birthday and a long life, I would rather it had been strangled at birth.

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