Tell Me Something I Don’t Know (Ep. 183): Full Transcript
This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.”
Hey, podcast listeners. The new episode you’re about to hear is called “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.” It’s a live recording of a new game show that we just invented. As you’ll hear, it was a lot of fun in person. The hope, of course, as that you’ll have fun listening to it as a podcast. Whatever the case, do me a favor and let us know what you think. You can tweet us @Freakonomics, leave a comment on our Facebook page or at Freakonomics.com, or shoot us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear whatever feedback you have, pro, con, or tangential. Thanks!
Joel MEYER: Alright, so quiet everybody. Start in three, two…
ANNOUNCER: Live from the Greene Space at WNYC in New York City, welcome to this Freakonomics Radio live event. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
Stephen J. DUBNER: Thank you so very much, and welcome to the Greene Space. Tonight we are going to try something very different, okay? So not only is it a live show, which we’ve never done before, but it’s a brand new show that we invented for this occasion. So I hope you’ll understand if I’m a little bit nervous. I am however, comforted by the fact that you all should actually be a lot more nervous than me, because you, the audience are going to be the stars of the show. Okay, by the time it’s over, I run the risk of being slightly embarrassed, you however run the risk of being completely broken. Now, here at Freakonomics Radio our mission has always been to tell you a) things you always thought you knew but didn’t, and b) things you never thought you wanted to know, but do. For instance, you probably did not know that nearly 100 percent of the turkeys eaten by Americans are the result of artificial insemination. Now, why would that be?
Julie LONG: The modern turkey has quite large turkey breasts, and it actually physically gets in the way when the male and the female try to create offspring.
DUBNER: Yeah, I was expecting more sympathy than that gained…Yeah. You probably do know that men are on many level inferior to women. But did you know just how inferior they — we — are when it comes to getting out of the way of a thunderstorm?
John JENSENIUS: Typically, 80 to 85 percent of the lightning fatalities across the United States are men.
DUBNER: You laugh at the men being struck by lightning and the poor turkeys…Okay, and I bet you didn’t know this: If you work at a company with let’s say 100 people, 100 employees who have college degrees, even advanced degrees, at least one of them is probably lying. Here’s former FBI Agent Allen Ezell.
Allen EZELL: Let me put it this way, the United States, all the colleges and universities in our country, award about 1.3 million degrees a year. Approximately 1 percent of that, we believe is the amount of phony degrees that are sold in our country each year.
DUBNER: Okay, so that’s some of what we’ve told you over the years. But let me be honest with you, we’re exhausted. Okay. It takes a lot of effort to come up with all this stuff to tell you that you didn’t know. We are totally out of ideas. So we thought that we would do what any institution does when they’re facing a crisis, which is think how can we make our problem someone else’s problem? And that’s what this show is really about. We thought: Why don’t we have all of you come and tell us something we don’t know. Okay? And we decided that we’d call this new show “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.” So how’s this going to work? Well the first thing we need are some judges. So let’s bring them out. Please join me in welcoming Malcolm Gladwell, Ana Gasteyer, and David Paterson.
DUBNER: Judges, welcome. Here are a few things that we know so far about you. Malcolm Gladwell, we know that you are a staff writer for The New Yorker. You’ve written five best selling books, by which I mean best, the best selling books, ever. The first was The Tipping Point, the most recent is David and Goliath. We also know that you were an excellent schoolboy middle-distance runner. And just recently, a week or so ago, you ran the 5th Avenue mile here in New York and placed fifth in your age group with a time of, this is fantastic, four minutes and 54 seconds for the mile. Malcolm Gladwell. And this was nine seconds faster than your time last year in the mile? So according to my calculations, if you keep improving at this rate, by the time you’re 84, you’ll be the first human to run a sub-zero mile. Do you see what I did there? It’s math, yeah, yeah. Alright, Malcolm, if you would, why don’t you tell us something that we don’t know about you.
Malcolm GLADWELL: When I was 18-years-old, I interned for a summer with Justice Scalia, before he was justice. And he fired me.
DUBNER: Badge, black badge of courage. Yeah. Why’d you get fired? Was it for cause?
GLADWELL: For cause. Yeah, absolutely.
DUBNER: Can you tell us a tiny bit…
GLADWELL: I was just incompetent. I think that was the–
DUBNER: Has your competence grown?
GLADWELL: I’m not sure.
DUBNER: What was he like?
GLADWELL: Well, impatient with incompetence.
DUBNER: Ana Gasteyer, hi.
Ana GASTEYER: Hi.
DUBNER: We are so happy to have you here.
GASTEYER: Thank you.
DUBNER: We know that you were a cast member of Saturday Night Live for six seasons. Not only did you give us “Schweddy Balls,” which by the way set public radio back for years.
GASTEYER: I’m sorry, I apologize to the organization.
DUBNER: Also, however, a Martha Stewart impression so wicked that you are still apologizing to Martha Stewart.
GASTEYER: Yes, yes I am. I set her back for years, too.
DUBNER: You have starred in films including Mean Girls, on Broadway as Elphaba in Wicked and on TV including the ABC sitcom Suburgatory. We also know you are a fantastic singer. Your new record is called “I’m Hip.” Just out. And you describe is as “moxie jazz.” What the heck is moxie jazz?
GASTEYER: It’s happy jazz. You know it is jazz you get drunk to, mostly.
DUBNER: Nice. Alright, now Ana, can you tell us something now we do not know about you?
GASTEYER: Well, some people know this, but I grew up in Washington D.C., and I was a childhood friend of Amy Carter, the president’s daughter and was invited to Camp David for the weekend as a fifth grader. But the most crazy thing is that I watched Star Wars with the Sadats.
DUBNER: Wow, wow.
GASTEYER: Which was, you know, the big event for me, because, you know, it was Star Wars.
DUBNER: I’m curious which side they took while watching. Was that a bad thing to say. Governor Paterson was that a bad idea?
David PATERSON: No it was fine.
DUBNER: David Paterson, we know that you were the 55th governor of this very great state of New York. That’s good.
DUBNER: These days you are the distinguished professor of healthcare and public policy at Touro College and you’re the chair of the New York State Democratic Party, which has gone how many days now without an indictment? It’s been a while, yeah?
PATERSON: About a week.
DUBNER: Despite being legally blind, you’ve been known to be a basketball player. One opponent, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo is quoted as saying you’ve got “some kind of sonar for the basket.” I couldn’t tell, was that a compliment?
PATERSON: No. You don’t get compliments from him.
DUBNER: How good a basketball player are, or were you?
PATERSON: I had one moment where Governor Cuomo threw me a pass and I made a layup, and as I made the layup somebody knocked me down and I flung the ball and it went in the basket. And these people from CBS came over right on the court, and I’m lying on the floor and they said, well, you’re blind how did you make that shot. And I said, I guess I got over it, and I ran down the court, and I knew that would be on TV that night. So I called all my friends and my staff and people I owed money and told them to watch TV that night. And it didn’t come on. You know why?
DUBNER: No, why?
PATERSON: That’s the night O.J. Simpson went up the highway with the white Bronco, and I kept saying kill him, kill him and put the news on!
DUBNER: Now, Governor Paterson, it was your turn to tell us something we didn’t know about you, but I feel you just got in the confessional and went on us, so is there anything else?
PATERSON: No, that’s it.
DUBNER: Alright then. We are ready to play “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.” Here’s how it’s going to work. Okay. An audience contestant will come on stage and tell us their “I don’t know,” heretofore known as an “IDK.” After which you, each of the judges, will give each contestant a score. And each of you will rank each one from zero to 10 points, which means that a perfect score from all three judges would be a 30. Now, what are we actually hoping to hear tonight, and to learn tonight? Well, most of us like to learn about things purely out of self-interest, it’s exciting to learn new information. But the pursuit of knowledge merely to possess that knowledge can be a bit narcissistic. You might sound smart at a cocktail party—or on a podcast—but what’s really exciting, what we’re really hoping to hear, is some knowledge that can be leveraged into something useful in the world. So it can be fun, but if it’s useful, all the better. So we want to learn things that we don’t know and that are in some way worth knowing. And one last thing: your IDK should be demonstrably true. To that end, we’ve got our one-man b.s. detector Jody Avirgan over in the corner. Jody is a producer at WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show and he’s the host of “Ask Roulette,” a podcast and live-event series. And here’s one more thing you may not know about Jody: he’s a professional athlete, he’s a veteran of Major League Ultimate, as in Ultimate Frisbee. Welcome Jody, please, won’t you?
Jody AVIRGAN: Thank you, Stephen.
DUBNER: And Jody do you want to just tell us how you’ll actually be doing this super secret atomic verification?
AVIRGAN: Yeah, I’ve got my LexisNexis password, and I’ve renewed my subscriptions to all the scholarly journals. But mostly I’ve got a tab open on Google, and a tab open on Wikipedia.
DUBNER: Okay, great, let’s play. Every contestant, as a reward for playing, will receive a Freakonomics Radio t-shirt or mug. The winner of each round will move on to the final round and compete for a grand prize – and believe me, I do mean grand. Contestants and judges, I want you to keep in mind the criteria: No. 1: we didn’t know it; No. 2: it’s worth knowing; and No. 3: it’s demonstrably true, okay, or at least true-ish.And so first let’s call up our first contestant, Seth is it Porges? Porges. Porges as in gorgeous. Hi Seth, how you doing?
Seth PORGES: I’m great.
DUBNER: Who are you? What do you do?
SETH: I’m a journalist and a co-founder of an app called Cloth.
DUBNER: So what do you have to tell these guys, all of us, something that we don’t know?
SETH: Did you know that pinball machines were illegal in New York City for more than three decades, during which time the city engaged in a series of prohibition-style sweeps through the city, including with a dedicated NYPD pinball squad, over which course they would confiscate and smash with sledge hammers thousands upon thousands of pinball machines?
GLADWELL: Wow. When was this?
SETH: Pinball machines were illegal until 1976.
GLADWELL: Oh my goodness.
PATERSON: Why were they illegal?
SETH: They were thought to be a game of chance and not skill, and thus thought according to the logic of the 30’s and 40’s when the ban started, gambling, they were also thought to be a mob racket. And unlike other gambling devices like slot machines, they were thought to be a game that appealed to children, and thus especially evil and a nefarious sort of gateway gambling devices that would lure kids into their traps and never let them go.
DUBNER: Were they a mob racket? You said thought to be.
SETH: Maybe. Some of them probably were.
GASTEYER: Do you believe that pinball is a chance game?
SETH: Well back in the day, flippers didn’t exist, so the game entirely involved nudging the ball into holes and it would actually knock into pins. So the games look nothing like they do today, there’s certainly a lot more skill in the game today than there was back then.
DUBNER: Malcolm, Ana, Governor Paterson , anything more you want to prod Seth on?
PATERSON: Well, who actually liberated us of this curse?
SETH: Well that’s a really great story. So first, the most virulent anti-pinball force ever was Mayor LaGuardia who it’s really not an exaggeration to say that his number one priority of his entire administration was getting rid of pinball machines from New York City. He tried for more than a decade to do this until just a couple weeks after Pearl Harbor. He uses the fact that we’re distracted with U-boats to push through what he always wanted for more than a decade, which is a city-wide, total, universal ban on pinball machines. Within one day they confiscate more than 2,300 pinball machines. And they remain this way until ’76, when the pinball industry finally got what it wanted, which was a hearing in front of City Council where they could prove that pinball was a game of skill and not chance, and thus the whole logic behind the ban was null and void. So what they do is they bring in the best pinball player that they can into City Hall with a pinball machine. And it was a 26-year-old editor of GQ Magazine named Roger Sharp who was known as a really good pinball player. So they bring him in with a pinball machine, and he plays pinball in City Hall, surrounded by City Council, cameras, microphones, and he basically calls his shots. He says I’m going to pull the plunger back, I’m going to hit the ball here. Nobody is really impressed. So he pulls the plunger back to start a new ball, and he says based on my skill alone, the ball will land in the middle lane at the top of the playing field. So he pulls the plunger back, the ball bounces to the left, bounces to the right, and goes right where he says it was. Almost on the spot, New York City Council votes to overturn the 34-year-old ban on pinball machines.
DUBNER: That is a beautiful thing. Yeah. Alright, Seth, Seth Porges as in gorgeous, yes?
DUBNER: Jody, what can you tell us. Does Seth’s ‘evils of pinball’ story seem to pan out from what you can tell?
AVIRGAN: I fact checked this, and it is true. And I want to buy the rights to make this movie. This is amazing. I am looking at an amazing picture from 1949 of the New York City Police Commissioner, William O’Brien, smashing a pinball machine with a sledgehammer in some sort of pinball speakeasy, or whatever they had. This is great. And one little tidbit that Seth didn’t mention was that during World War II, the pinball industry much like the rest of manufacturing in America had to turn toward wartime efforts and since copper wiring was so important in pinballs, they had to shut down and send all their copper toward the war effort.
DUBNER: GTN, Good to know. Okay, so judges…Sorry, that’s a family…I know it’s wrong, that’s the way our family spells it, okay? I come from a family of bad spellers. Layoff. Judges, time for you to give it a score. Now remember you want to judge it on something you didn’t know something that’s worth knowing and something that’s verifiably, demonstrably true. Okay? Score maximum of 10. Malcolm what do you say?
GLADWELL: I’ll give it a 24.
DUBNER: Okay, you can only go up to 10 now.
GLADWELL: Oh, right.
DUBNER: It’s okay, no no no! No no no. You do the running, we’ll do the counting it’s okay.
GLADWELL: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I was speaking for the whole group. No, then I’m going to say eight.
DUBNER: Eight, okay lovely, Malcolm Gladwell gives it an eight.
GASTEYER: I’m going to give it a 9.
DUBNER: Nine, they love you Seth Porges gorgeous. Governor Paterson?
PATERSON: I give it a 24.
PATERSON: Nine. I was tempted to go to 10.
SETH: Go to 10.
DUBNER: Seth Porges, 26 points out of a possible 30, well done. Fantastic. Okay, our next contestant is named Erin Thompson. You can clap. Hi Erin.
Erin THOMPSON: Hello.
DUBNER: I love your glasses.
ERIN: Thank you.
DUBNER: This is good radio talk, you know. What do you do?
ERIN: I’m a professor or art law and art crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
DUBNER: Oh, I didn’t know they had that, that’s neat. Okay good. Tell us something we don’t know.
ERIN: Well everybody knows that museums have billions of dollars of art hanging on their walls. But did you know that the security at many museums is so lax that burglars can incredibly easily steal these masterpieces. In fact, in the most recent spectacular museum break-ins, the tools used have been as simple as a pair of pliers to jimmy open the back door of Rotterdam’s Kunsthal Museum, or a ladder to climb up and break the unreinforced window glass next to Munch’s “The Scream,” or even nothing at all as was the case when one night in 2007 when a group of drunken revelers broke into Paris’s Orsay museum and punched a hole through a Monet. So why don’t museums have the elaborate laser systems that we see in the movies? Well for one, museums know that the more valuable and thus more recognizable a work of art, the more easily it will be recovered. But more importantly there’s the issue of ROI, return on investment. Museums have incredibly limited security budgets. And museums know that art thefts are rare. Whereas a surprisingly high percentage of all museum visitors would touch, write or even spit on works of art if permitted. So, museums spend their limited security budgets on preventing the threat that faces them every day, the threat of petty vandalism, displaying economic rationality by leaving their masterpieces exposed to the very occasional threat of an impressionist snatching Thomas Crown.
DUBNER: So Erin, the message here is we should all steal more art, right?
ERIN: I would have to catch you if you did, but…
GLADWELL: Is there an example of a museum that really does have fantastic state of the art security?
ERIN: The Getty museum has the best security, mainly because if you’re ever been there you have to take a little tram up the hill. So if something is missing they shut down the tram and everybody is stuck on the hill until they search you.
PATERSON: Is there a museum in the White House?
PATERSON: Just wondering why the guy went in there.
DUBNER: Jody, what do you know?
AVIRGAN: This generally checks out. The 1994 theft of “The Scream” in Oslo, the thieves who, you know, basically waltzed in and took it they left a note that read, “Thanks for the poor security.” And Erin mentioned limited museum budgets, so I actually wondered how much museum guard makes. And it’s not great. At The Met it’s about 10 to 12 bucks an hour. But this led to a 2010 New York Times article about how many Met museum employees are actually aspiring artists themselves. And in 2010, the museum launched an art journal featuring the art of museum guards called Swipe. And this showcased their work.
DUBNER: Nice. Jody, you are a hell of a Googler.
AVIRGAN: I’m a really good Googler.
DUBNER: Judges, time to give Erin’s IDK a score here. Ana tell us what you want to score it and why.
GASTEYER: I’m going to give you a 6 because it is really interesting, and I didn’t know it. And I look forward to talking about it at a party.
DUBNER: If it were less interesting it would have gotten a seven, then, right. Six for really interesting.
GASTEYER: Yeah, but…
DUBNER: Sorry you weren’t done. I interrupted you.
GASTEYER: Well if you’re going to get mad at me, I’ll go up to a seven.
DUBNER: We should call it off.
GASTEYER: Well go up to a seven. I mean, eight for the baby. Fine. To our listening audience at home. Erin’s with child. Okay, so sorry Jody, are you with child too? Can you Google that, Jody?
DUBNER: Governor Paterson ?
DUBNER: Want to tell us, why or keep that to yourself?
PATERSON: No actually I thought the information was very good. I would have liked to have been a little more persuaded that I needed to know this.
GASTEYER: That’s what I was trying to say but not as well.
GLADWELL: Well I’m puzzled by why the previous two judges don’t find this useful, this is really useful, way more useful than pinball. I’m going nine. This is–
DUBNER: Erin Thompson. Grand total of 25 points for ‘why is stealing art so easy?’ Lovely, lovely, very well done. Next contestant, Will McLeod, come on up. Hi Will.
Will MCLEOD: Hey there, Stephen.
DUBNER: What do you do?
WILL: So I’m an engineer, I work with tech start-up companies in hardware. Keen Home my start up right now is making wireless, learning HVAC vents.
DUBNER: Tell us something we don’t know here. Would you?
WILL: Cool. So I think a lot of people have spent time thinking about losing weight. But have you ever asked yourself when you lose weight, where does that weigh actually go?
DUBNER: Wait a minute, have we all thought that? Okay.
WILL: It’s a mystery and I like to think things through. I think a lot of people when they think about losing weight, when you Google that phrase where does the weight actually go, what you’ll find is a lot of pages of articles saying that weight becomes energy. Well did you know that when you lose weight you actually lose it through your nose? I like to hear that, that’s good, that means people didn’t know. I get the novel point, right? Alright, so I think what a lot of people think when you Google the phrase you’ll see that weight become energy. But that would be nuclear fusion. If you were turning mass into energy we would all be walking nuclear reactors. We’re not radioactive, so we’re not doing that. So then the question becomes where does it go? Well I think a lot of people think maybe it goes in the toilet. That’s a good hypothesis.
DUBNER: Is that at least partially true?
WILL: Yeah you do a little bit, but when you’re actually talking about digesting fat there’s one way you can run an experiment and see whether or not that’s true. So if you go to bed at night, weigh yourself right before you do, exactly, weigh yourself in the morning before you go to the bathroom again, you’ll find that you lose some weight. I lose about two pounds in the morning. You’ll actually lightest when you wake up. So the question is where is it going, since it’s not going into the toilet, unless you need to change your sheets. It’s going somewhere else.
DUBNER: Edit! Sorry, no, no, it’s fine. It’s public radio, you can really say anything.
WILL: Alright, so we know it’s not fusion, we know it’s not going into the toilet, it turns out the place it’s actually going is super interesting. It’s going into the air. The air we breath out is heavier than the air we breath in. Carbon dioxide and water vapor are heavier than the oxygen and the little bit of carbon dioxide and little bit of water vapor that we breathe in. And we kind of know this from what we learned in high school, the Krebs Cycle, the citric acid cycle. But that’s a really boring, abstract way to think about something that’s so cool and interesting. So think about it another way, think about a potted plant, an acorn that you put into a pot on a scale. And you put a bowl of water next to it, and every day you water it from the bowl. So as that acorn turns into a tree it’s going to get heavier, right? But where’s that weight coming from, it’s not form the soil, the soil’s already on the scale, it’s not from the water, the water’s already on the scale, it actually comes from the air itself. The air becomes the tree, and that’s what carbon sequestration is. It’s that process of turning these floating molecules of carbon dioxide into the tree. And people do the opposite. We’re like these walking fires turning solid fuel into gases, just like a car turns liquid fuel into exhaust or a fire makes smoke, but our smoke is cleaner, it’s what we breathe out. And what I think is so cool about that is once you know that you start to ask yourself questions like, well if I’m losing weight, does that mean that every time I breathe do I lose a little bit more. Does breathing faster mean I lose more weight? Yeah, that’s what exercise is.
DUBNER: Will, awesome. Judges, want to know more?
GASTEYER: I’m super psyched I’m not Jody right now.
AVIRGAN: I got nothing.
DUBNER: Losing weight through nose.
GLADWELL: But wait, does this say… this is a really dumb question, so if I simply sit here and go (pants) am I, is that a means of losing weight?
WILL: You’ll pass out unfortunately.
DUBNER: Which could also be fun.
WILL: But it does. So the way to make sure you don’t pass out, is to work out, which means if you ask yourself which exercise is best of losing weight, it’s the one that gets you breathing just like that, harder and faster.
DUBNER: Jody, losing weight through the nose?
AVIRGAN: Well, Will is right, when you Google the phrase “where does the weight actually go” you get no good results. So thanks for that red herring, Will. But I then made the mistake of Googling “do you lose weight by breathing” and I got lots of tips on yoga techniques. But I also found an article about the latest weight loss program to sweep America: Oxycise. In 15 minutes a day, just by breathing, over 750,000 followers claim it transforms body shape, sheds pounds in weeks, and improves muscle tone and boosts energy levels.
DUBNER: Oh, I believe every word of that.
AVIRGAN: Oh yeah, 750,000 breathing Americans can’t be wrong. But he is right that carbon dioxide weighs more than oxygen.
DUBNER: Keep in mind the criteria here, is it novel, is it worth knowing and is it true. And let’s score this puppy. Governor Paterson, what do you want to give Will and why?
PATERSON: So, well, everyone talks about weight so obviously it’s worth knowing, and is it true, apparently it’s true. And it’s great to know that the mass weighs less than the energy. I never knew that, and neither did Albert Einstein. But, I’ll give it a nine.
DUBNER: The hecklers are out, nice. Malcolm.
GLADWELL: I’m going, I’m gonna go six. It didn’t…As interesting as it was, I feel like I kind of knew that that the weight to lose weight was to do something that caused me to breathe heavily. So…
DUBNER: Fair enough, six points from Malcolm Gladwell. And Ana Gasteyer?
GASTEYER: Yes, I’m going to do a seven, similarly because it was super intriguing, also knew about the fast breathing, I thought you did a great job explaining it, but I would absolutely get stuck on the tree and the water story at a dinner party. Like I would pull the party to a grinding halt. And everybody would be excited to know about the weight loss through the nose, and I’d be like ‘well should we make dessert?’ And then we move on. So I have to give you a seven, because the walk away isn’t clean enough for me. But it was good. It was interesting.
DUBNER: Will McLeod, 22 points, but also Freakonomics Radio t-shirt or mug. Thank you so much, well done.
WILL: Thanks guys.
DUBNER: Great job, great job. We’re going to have one more contestant in this first round, her name is Melissa Schneider. Melissa, will you come on up? Hi Melissa.
Melissa SCHNEIDER: Hello.
DUBNER: How’s it going?
MELISSA: Pretty good.
DUBNER: What do you do?
MELISSA: I am a dating and relationships counselor. I’m wearing a heart shirt.
DUBNER: You are wearing a heart shirt. And you’re sitting next to a fella.
MELISSA: He’s my husband. Success story.
DUBNER: Oh, your work is done.
MELISSA: That’s right.
DUBNER: And now you do this for other people presumably?
MELISSA: That’s right, for a fee.
DUBNER: What do you get?
MELISSA: One twenty-five a session.
DUBNER: A hundred twenty-five thousand dollars?
MELISSA: Yes, that is correct. I’m offering a package.
DUBNER: What can you tell us tonight that we don’t know?
MELISSA: Okay, so if you’re single, or dating, or married, you might find this interesting. I’ve got one person. So people always want to know what should I be looking for in an early dating relationships, what predicts that it’s going to be successful or breakup? There’s great research done in 2010, looked at 37,000 dating couples in different countries, and they looked at 30 factors that had been studied at least four times to figure out like what actually matters? What makes a difference in who stays together and who breaks up. And the number one factor was a big surprise to everyone conducting the study. It wasn’t commitment, or love, or trust, or the things that you’d expect. It was something called the “awesomeness factor.” That’s what I call it. It was actually called “positive illusions,” Jody.
DUBNER: Positive illusions? Illusions with an “i”?
MELISSA: Illusions, yes. So you can ask me a question about that. But I like to call it the awesomeness factor because the criteria was basically that you think your partner is great, you think your relationship is kind of better than all your friends’ relationships, but you wouldn’t tell them that. And you feel like your partner is close to like your quirky sense of ideal for you. And it didn’t just matter in dating. It actually also mattered in marriage. One study that looked at newlyweds and kind of evaluated this factor found that three years later satisfaction had dropped for everybody, except, one group. Guess who it was? The people who had a high awesomeness factor the day they walked down the aisle. And I just celebrated my third wedding anniversary, so I can give an anecdote.
DUBNER: Now, are both of you awesome or just one? Does it take two? Is he awesome and you’re eh?
MELISSA: That’s a good question. It’s actually your perception of your partner. And they have found slight differences if your partner just thinks, like, you’re lame.
PATERSON: Well, I’m really glad you cleared this up. I always thought the test was whether or not the passenger opens the driver’s seat door, like in A Bronx Tale.
GLADWELL: So you’re saying, when you say positive illusions, do you mean to say that those who have this are people who are, have a, are misled about the virtues of their partner. So in other words they think their partner is better than the partner actually is.
MELISSA: Yes and no. So, I think the early researchers maybe had a hard time with dating. If you read their papers and they’re like, ah the rose colored glasses, they don’t know what they’re looking at. But it actually turns out that if you think your partner is awesome, they actually become a bit awesomer over the course of your relationship, so there’s kind of like this self-fulfilling, you know…
GASTEYER: It’s your perception of their awesomeness that counts. They could be super gross to someone else, super unawesome, or foul, one might say. But you personally find that person to have a super awesome quality.
MELISSA: That’s right. Perception is reality. So if you think that’s true, it impacts your whole experience of the relationship.
GASTEYER: So it is rose-colored glasses, but manifested over a lifetime.
MELISSA: But they work, and they seem to matter. Yeah.
PATERSON: But aren’t people deceived that way by the same process?
MELISSA: Now, you sound like the early researchers. So perhaps.
PATERSON: Well, I knew them.
DUBNER: Jody, is there such a thing as the awesomeness factor and does it work?
AVIRGAN: Well I did find this 2010 study and it’s called “Predicting Non-marital Romantic Relationship Disillusion: A Meta-analytic Synthesis.” So I think “awesomeness factor” is a better name.
MELISSA: Way better, yeah.
AVIRGAN: I’m with the judges. Everything I Googled in the last 30 seconds about positive illusions really does talk about it as a form of self-delusion and then projection. But you seem to say it has good effects. The one other thing that came up was this idea of perceived superiority, which is how you view your relationship in relation to others. And that apparently makes a really big difference, not just your partner.
MELISSA: Exactly, so find friends with a bad relationship, you shoot right up.
AVIRGAN: And one study that I found…I like this…One study I found concluded that in men especially satisfaction was particularly related to the perception that one’s relationship was superior to others, whereas in women’s, satisfaction was related to the assumption that most others were just as happy if not more happy than you.
DUBNER: That’s why we get struck by lightning.
DUBNER: Malcolm, what do you want to score this, and why?
GLADWELL: Well, you know, I feel like I’ve already established with my votes on the other people how high the bar is particularly for novelty and also usefulness. I mean knowing you can rip off a museum at a moments notice is like so useful. This, high, but not as high, so I’m going to say seven.
DUBNER: Very good. Malcolm, thank you. Ana?
GASTEYER: Yeah, I’m completely subjectively scoring this. I’m going to give it a nine for the opposite reason as a long-term married person who really enjoys being superior to others, I’m going to…I find it incredibly useful and I’m going to talk about it my whole 18th wedding anniversary. Couple of weeks.
DUBNER: Governor Paterson?
PATERSON: So I’ll give it a nine, too, because obviously…
DUBNER: So nine point two, or nine, also? You can go decimal.
GASTEYER: That’s a new twist.
DUBNER: We were holding out for the second round, but you dragged it out of me.
PATERSON: I thought she delivered it in a very relaxed way, and didn’t sort of say that it always has to work, but it just seems to be a trend. And our whole lives are really in many ways are about myth, and why shouldn’t that be in our relationships?
MELISSA: That’s right.
GASTEYER: I like that she got awesomeness factor votes for her awesomeness factor.
DUBNER: Yeah, exactly, and the shirt. Melissa Schneider, 25 points, thank you so much for playing “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.”
[MUSIC: The Jaguars, “Shimmy Go Go” (from The Jaguars)]
DUBNER: Great, great job. Alright ladies and gentlemen that concludes our first round. And we have a winner. With a total of 26 points, is Seth Porges, who wowed us with ‘the evils of pinball.’ Way to go Seth. Alright, Seth, congratulations. We’ll see you again in the final round. Now let’s take a quick break. We’ll be right back with more of “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” from Freakonomics Radio and WNYC.
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Joel MEYER: No but, seriously, everybody… quiet down…
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: Welcome back to “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know” from Freakonomics Radio. I’m Stephen Dubner. Our next round is called “Judge’s Choice.” Before the show, we asked each of our three judges what they wanted to know more about, and now our live audience is going to try to help them out. Okay. Ana Gasteyer, former Saturday Night Live cast member, just out with a new record called “I’m Hip.” And I love your video, it’s so great.
GASTEYER: Thank you.
DUBNER: You’re fantastic. Ana, I understand you are eager to know more about the Civil War. Why is that?
GASTEYER: Yes, because I took a summer school class that covered it and I was pretty out to lunch. So I got the big picture, but it’s kind of an embarrassing thing not to know anything about…
DUBNER: Do you remember who the teams were?
GASTEYER: Very vaguely. And my son’s name is Ulysses, so the heat’s on.
DUBNER: David Paterson, former Governor of New York, now a professor of health care and public policy, you’d like to know more about astronomy, says you. Why’s that?
PATERSON: I went to the Hayden Planetarium on one of those class trips when I was seven or eight years old, and kind of got caught up in trying to figure out the universe. Now I want to govern the universe.
DUBNER: And Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author and staff writer at The New Yorker. You told us you want to know more about tax law.
DUBNER: Sexy. Why is that, Malcolm?
GLADWELL: When I came to this country 20 years ago, or so from Canada, I kind of discovered something that amazes me to this day, which is that, what, 75 percent of American politics is just about taxes. So why wouldn’t I want to know more about that?
DUBNER: Lovely! That’s the answer I was not expecting. Here’s how Judge’s Choice will work, folks. Members of the audience, we need you to line up at the microphone right over there, if you can tell us something we don’t know about the Civil War, astronomy, or tax law. Now, this is a lightning round, so make it fast. If you hear this bell [DING] that means you should stop talking and return to your seat, okay. All you need to do is tell us your name and your IDK, your I Don’t Know. Everyone who plays will get a Freakonomics Radio t-shirt or mug and the winner of this round will qualify for the final round. Judges, at the end of the round we’ll ask each of you to pick your favorite IDK that was directed at you and give it a score, again, anywhere from zero to 10 points based on the same criteria: something you didn’t know, something that’s worth knowing, and that’s demonstrably true. Okay, let’s go. First contestant! Please step up, tell us your name and something we don’t know.
CONTESTANT 1: My name is Michael Oldham. This fact is cited a recent book by Randall Munroe called What If? If a super nova occurred where the sun is—don’t worry the sun isn’t going to super nova—but if it did it would be so bright, it would be brighter than if a hydrogen bomb exploded at the surface of your eyeball. Not only would it be brighter, it would be a billion times brighter. A super nova from the sun would be a billion times brighter than if a hydrogen bomb exploded right here.
DUBNER: Hi there, come on up and tell us your name.
CONTESTANT 2: Hey, my name is Daniel. This is for Mr. Gladwell. Did you know that in Ireland and in Denmark there is a flatulence tax on cows to reduce the emissions that are brought out by them? And this is important, because this might end up happening in America as well. So the cows, every cow that a farmer owns, is taxed.
DUBNER: Beautifully done, thank you so much Daniel. Step on up and tell us something we don’t know.
CONTESTANT 3: Hi my name is Malhaar, and did you know that on January, oh, this is astronomy, and did you know that on January 2nd, we usually celebrate January 1st as the New Year, but on January 2nd, there’s an astronomical event called the perihelion, which is when the earth is closest to the sun. Think about how close, if January 1st is really an arbitrary number, imagine if January 2nd was the new year. How cool would that be?
DUBNER: Okay, very good. Hi there.
CONTESTANT 4: Hi. My name is Jackie, and for those who want to retire with a bit more money, there’s a tax loophole where you can contribute to your traditional 401(k) and then roll it over to a post tax Roth 401(k) without any penalties saving you upwards of 30%.
DUBNER: Beautiful. Thank you so much. Hi there, tell us your name and something we don’t know.
CONTESTANT 5: Hi, my name is Alex. Malcolm, I’m a long-time fan of your hair. That’s probably what you do know about me. So this is an astronomy fact, continuing the supernova theme. But according to a recent projection, every second there are 30 super novi in the observable…observable universe. That’s for every baby born there are seven stars that explode.
DUBNER: Beautiful. Hi there, does anyone know anything about the Civil War?
GASTEYER: No. Put it this way, I don’t know anything, so it’s all going to be good for me. It’s a high score.
DUBNER: Hi, what’s your name?
CONTESTANT 5: My name is Aaron Weiner.
DUBNER: Hi Aaron.
CONTESTANT 5: I have something about tax law…in the Civil War!
GASTEYER: Hi-uh! Oh boy!
PATERSON: In which galaxy?
CONTESTANT 5: So during the Civil War, the South levied taxes at a rate consistent with what its Confederate money was worth at the time. But then as its territory shrank, as it lost, there was effectively a large amount of inflation, because they had the same amount of money concentrated in a smaller and smaller area where it was legal. So they ended up not levying enough taxes and it was a vicious cycle contributing to the inflation and decline of the economy, which hurt their ability to wage war.
DUBNER: Very well done. Tough to beat. Tough to beat. Hi there, how do you do? What’s your name?
CONTESTANT 6: Hi, so I’m Idris, and so this is tax law and the Civil War. So the Union needed to pay for the war, because wars were expensive. So what they did is establish an income tax on the rich. And so the way they enforced it was they created a registry, so that you could look up any person and see how much they paid in taxes. And so anybody who thought that somebody was kind of living in a way that wasn’t consistent with the income they reported, so what you could do is you could report them. And say oh, well this person is living too large. So in fact someone managed to report Abraham Lincoln, so on the tax reporter’s like ledger, what they did was they had to actually go investigate this, which is kind of funny.
DUBNER: I agree. Thank you so much, great job Idris. Great job. Hi tell us your name, and something we don’t know.
CONTESTANT 7: Hi my name is Marianna, and this is an astronomy fact. So did you know that the Illinois State Senate was so angry when Pluto was demoted from planet to dwarf planet in 2006 that on March 13, 2009, they voted to reinstate it as a planet and named that day Pluto Day in Illinois?
DUBNER: Beautiful. Okay, hi, tell us your name, and something we don’t know.
CONTESTANT 8: Hi my name is Tom, we know more about the Civil War than we otherwise would have because of cancer. At the end of his life, President Ulysses Grant.
GASTEYER: Nicely played.
CONTESTANT 8: Because of a cancer diagnosis was pressured to write his memoirs and record a lot of information about The Civil War that we might not have known.
DUBNER: Nicely done. And we’ve got time I’m afraid for just one more. So why don’t you step up and tell us your name and something we don’t know.
CONTESTANT 9: Hi my Steven Nazarian, and this is an income tax law fact. There are really two classes of income tax payers in the United States, people who can itemize deductions and people who cannot. Typically that’s usually property owners and non-property owners. And of course here in New York we have a lot of renters. What most people don’t know is if they make some kind of large deduction, or large contribution, like maybe donating a used car, that that donations can actually be held over for as long as five years. And when I was younger, I donated a car that I paid 100 bucks for, I got a $2,550 write off, I held it for four years. Then I bought a house, and I got a $900 credit on my taxes. So netted out $800.
DUBNER: Wow, you should have been governor. Great job. Great job. Thank you so much. Okay. Now, here’s the thing, judges it’s time for each of you to pick your favorite of those and assign a number score to it. Okay.
GASTEYER: Just to be clear, I can only vote on the things about the Civil War?
DUBNER: Yeah. Basically we want each of you to pick a winner in your category and give them a score.
GASTEYER: Got it.
DUBNER: So Governor Paterson, we heard quite a bit about astronomy, your cherished topic.
PATERSON: We did, and they were all very good. And I think actually when they took Pluto’s planet status away, they actually called it decommissioning. Like I never knew they had any commissions on Pluto. But: bring on Malhaar.
DUBNER: So that was telling us about January 2nd versus January 1st. Very good, very good. And Governor Paterson, can you put a number score on that one please?
PATERSON: Like, a, like a 10.
DUBNER: Not even like a 10, a 10. Fantastic. Malcolm Gladwell…
PATERSON: I mean, they’re only one day apart, and he sold it like it was half a year apart.
DUBNER: Malcolm Gladwell, you asked the people to tell you about tax law, they told you about tax law. What was your favorite?
GLADWELL: Oh wow, they were all good. This is impossible. But I’m going to go with cow flatulence.
GLADWELL: Did not see that coming. I’m going to give him a nine.
GASTEYER: You know, it was a deadlock, same thing, it was a nail biter between Aaron Weiner and Tom. It was, they were both incredibly useful facts. One involved tax law, one didn’t. One involved Ulysses. I’m going to say that I’m going to choose the factoid about Grant having cancer because I think there’s something really applicable in conversation about how we record history and memory.
DUBNER: Beautiful. Okay. Nicely done. Jody, we have a contested contest here, can you tell us anything about the winners and whether they’re as factual as we think they are?
AVIRGAN: They are all generally factual. With regards to the window…There’s actually sort of window around the second of January where the Earth and the Sun are the closest. And I think in 2015 it’s going to be January 4th, that the Earth and the sun are closest to each other. But…. so I guess he was wrong.
DUBNER: Malhaar, how old are you Malhaar? You’re 12. Jody, you’re trying to tell a 12-year-old boy who just got up here and told us this, that you’re going to dock him for being a couple…
AVIRGAN: Malhaar, literally the first page of Google results, I’m just saying. I’m just saying. It’s not that hard buddy. Now, in Denmark, you will get taxed $110 per cow, per farting cow. In Ireland it’s only $18. So you’ve got to put them on a ship, get them over there and take advantage of that discrepancy.
DUBNER: Okay, here’s a question. That is an arbitrage opportunity. So here’s the question. Governor Paterson, having heard Jody tell us that Malhaar is…A little bit off. Do you want to dock him points? Do you want to take away his 10?
DUBNER: That was easy. Nicely done. Okay.
PATERSON: What would Google know about time?
[MUSIC: La Fleur Fatale, “Children of Neon Lights (Instrumental)” (from Night Generation)]
DUBNER: Alright. So we’ve got two winners. We’ve got a dead tie for the Judges’ Choices round. We’ve got Malhaar with ‘January 2nd,’ and Tom with ‘we wouldn’t know so much about the Civil War if it weren’t for Ulysses S. Grant’s cancer.’ Both of those got a 10, so congratulations Tom and Mahaar. You will now join Seth in our final round. Coming up: our three finalists will each team up in the final round with one of our judges to go after the grand prize. That’s next, on “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.”
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DUBNER: Welcome back to “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know,” it’s a new game show from Freakonomics Radio and WNYC. I’m Stephen Dubner. We’ve had a great night so far. I think we would agree. Wouldn’t we agree? Three of our audience contestants have made it through to this, the final round, where they’ll now be teamed up with our three judges. So, Governor David Paterson will play with Malhaar. Malcolm Gladwell will play with Tom. And Ana Gasteyerwill play with Seth. Welcome aboard guys. And now I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking final round? What is this final round? Were you thinking that, ish? May I present to you, please, “The Spinning Wheel of Maximum Danger!” That’s right, it is a spinning wheel with 12 rather random topics that you, our studio audience, helped us come up with before the show began. Remember how that worked? Now it’s all coming clear. Alright, so I’m going to read them to you. We’ve got our topics are: insulin, ninja warriors, workout tapes, anime, Staten Island, indoor plumbing…Did someone write those next to each other on purpose? That seems low blow. Hogwarts, Eleanor Roosevelt, bread, neuroscience, Disney, and the Kama Sutra. Okay, so here’s the way it’s going to work, okay? I’m going to spin the wheel to pick a topic for each team, and each team you’ll then have about 60 seconds, give or take, to confer to tell all of us that we don’t know about this rather randomly chosen topic. When that’s all over, our studio audience will give us a throat vote, and maybe a clapping and stomping however you want to make your noise, to pick our grand prizewinner. Okay, all clear? Any questions? Comments? Complaints? Criticism? Ana… is that just….?
GASTEYER: Just fear, blind fear.
DUBNER: Alright, let’s spin the wheel first to pick a topic for Team Paterson. Here we go. Eleanor Roosevelt. Right up the alley, yeah. Okay. Next a topic for Team Gladwell, with Tom. And you do not get to do Eleanor Roosevelt, also. We have a provision against this. And here it is. Bread. Wow, how lucky is that? And Seth and Ana, you get to tell us all something we don’t know about, what’s that, indoor plumbing. You got one vote already. Alright, take your time, all 60 seconds of it. And I want you to tell us something we don’t know about Eleanor Roosevelt for Team Paterson, indoor plumbing for Team Gasteyer, and bread for Team Gladwell.
DUBNER: Okay, time is up. We want to hear what you all came up with. Audience members, we’re going to vote after you’ve heard all three presentations. Okay. So first up: Governor David Paterson and Malhaar, we want you to tell us something we don’t know about Eleanor Roosevelt.
MALHAAR: Eleanor Roosevelt was a big friend of Amelia Earhart and a women’s rights advocate. She was such good friends with Amelia Earhart they were inseparable and when Amelia Earhart went missing, she was a huge proponent of the plan when the U.S. sent hundreds of ships around the area where she was last sent the radio, the last radio transmission.
DUBNER: Very good, okay, thank you very much. Malcolm Gladwell and Tom, what can you tell us about bread that we don’t know?
GLADWELL: Everyone thinks of focaccia as being some valuable part of some ancient Italian cultural culinary heritage. Wrong. It was invented by a guy in Milan in 1975.
DUBNER: Really? In Italy though. Milan. Is it Milan, Italy, or Milan, New Jersey? Milan?
GLADWELL: In Italy, but that’s about it.
DUBNER: Wow. Okay, focaccia not old.
GLADWELL: Not old.
DUBNER: Beautiful, thank you very much. And last but so not least. Ana Gasteyer and Seth, what can you tell us about indoor plumbing.
GASTEYER: We decided to talk about Mario from Super Mario Brothers, because he’s a plumber. That’s all we know about, so go ahead, Seth.
SETH: So Mario, the only reason he was a plumber in the first place was a total accident based on the graphical limitations of the early video games. Shigeru Miyamoto the guy who created Mario wanted a way to show form on his body so he made overalls to show the arms. And he wanted to show his face. So all the distinct hat, all the stuff that makes him a plumber it was all just because the computers back then kind of sucked.
GASTEYER: So he doesn’t really know how to fix your drain.
DUBNER: Wow, wow, fantastic. Fantastic. That’s just great. Just great. So that is, wowzer, those are so good. Okay, so before we have you all vote for the grand prize winner, Jody Avirgan, do you have anything to tell us on the factual level here?
AVIRGAN: Factual level. I’ve been Googling quickly, and actually before I got the fact about Eleanor Roosevelt, I had stumbled up a very fascinating Wikipedia section for Eleanor Roosevelt called “Other Relationships” and indeed she had a deep friendship…That’s on one end of the spectrum of how to characterize the relationship…
DUBNER: I think this is a different show we are getting into now…
AVIRGAN: She was deep friends with Amelia Earhart. They wrote letters to each together that included such endearments as “I want to put my arms around you and kiss you at the corner of your mouth.” And “I can’t kiss you so I kiss your picture goodnight and good morning.”
PATERSON: Now we know why she disappeared.
DUBNER: Oh boy. Now we know why you were a one-term governor! Okay, Jody, focaccia and Super Mario, anything on there?
AVIRGAN: I’m so thrilled to say: Malcolm Gladwell, I think you just made that up. In ancient Rome, panis focacius was a flat bread baked on a hearth.
DUBNER: I’ve got to tell you Jody, all night I’ve been thinking here, ‘we wasted the money on Jody,’ because everything’s right. But you busted Malcolm. Malcolm what do you have to say for yourself?
GLADWELL: Experts differ, experts differ.
DUBNER: Wow, wow, wow. I can’t believe this is all happening. Alright, audience we are now going to ask you to pick our grand prize winner. So keep in mind everything we’ve talked about tonight, something you didn’t know, something that’s worth knowing, something that’s true-ish. And those are the criteria. And we’re going to ask you to vote by clapping, shouting, whistling, whatever you’ve got. Okay, so first of all let’s hear the first vote for Team Paterson, Eleanor Roosevelt/Amelia Earhart. What do you got?
DUBNER: Substantial, very substantial. Team Gladwell with his partner Tom, focaccia, not so old, or maybe old.
GLADWELL: It’s true. It is true, it is true by the way.
DUBNER: I believe you. I wasn’t impressed but I believe. That’s why I wasn’t impressed. And finally, let’s hear your vote for Team Gasteyer and her partner, Seth, who told us about Super Mario. Let’s hear it.
DUBNER: So, I’d like to say, congratulations, to Governor Paterson and of course your teammate Malhaar! Great job. Malhaar, you are the very first winner of “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.” No matter what else happens in your life they can never take away this victory from you. Now, here’s the question, what grand prize could we possibly give you that’s commensurate level of knowledge you’ve displayed tonight? Well, Malhaar, you remember at the very beginning of the show the former FBI agent we heard from earlier?
EZELL: Let me put it this way, the United States, all the colleges and universities in our country, award about 1.3 million degrees a year. Approximately 1 percent of that, we believe is the amount of phony degrees that are sold in our country each year.
DUBNER: That’s right, Malhaar, we are buying you your very own counterfeit degree. Alright? Any degree you’d like, any university you’d like, the University of your choice. It will take us four to six weeks to get it printed to you. Maybe you want Harvard Law. You look like you aren’t even out of middle school yet, but you could have Harvard Law by the end of next month. Maybe something in animal husbandry. Listen, congratulations to Malhaar and all our other contestants.
[MUSIC: Two Dark Birds, “Pie Eyed (Instrumental)” (from Songs For The New)]
Thank you to our fantastic judges, Malcolm Gladwell, Ana Gasteyer, and David Paterson. Thank you to Jody Avirgan and everyone at WNYC and The Greene Space, especially Suzie Lechtenberg and tonight’s executive producer, Joel Meyer. And most of all, thanks to all of you for coming here to tell me—say it with me, people—“Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.” Thank you so much. Good night!
This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.“