For baking theory, the answer is: promoting gluten development
March 10, 2011 4:16 PM   Subscribe

What are some "best-guess" answers for your academic discipline (or job)?

When I was a computer science major, my professor once said, half-jokingly, 'if you're ever stumped on a question on a CS exam, just guess 2^n-1. You'll stand a good chance of being right.' I mentioned that to my wife one day, and she said, 'my chemistry teacher once said that the best default answer on a chem test is hydrogen bonding.'

What are other best-guess / effective-BS answers for your academic discipline (or profession)? Bonus points if you can (briefly) explain why the default answer is so common.

(I'm not training to become a professional bullshitter; I just think this is a fun question! And an indirect way to learn about other fields.)
posted by molybdenum to Education (74 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

(As in the letter C on a multiple choice test.)
posted by jsturgill at 4:19 PM on March 10, 2011

My mom and I are big trivia nerds.

Back when she was doing academic quiz bowl-type stuff when she was in high school, apparently flax was a really popular topic. If there was ever a question about a plant, fiber, or fabric, the answer was always flax.

When I was in high school, the answer was always lichen. At one meet, the proctor started with "this symbi--" and I buzzed in and said lichen. The answer was lichen.

There were a couple more stock answers for various categories (opera? always Pagliacci), but I can't remember most of them. But knowing "lichen" was clutch.
posted by phunniemee at 4:24 PM on March 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

In the humanities. On my whiteboard is the following statement: "The answer to any question worth asking is 'It depends.'"
posted by Paragon at 4:27 PM on March 10, 2011 [10 favorites]

This Slate article touches on this same idea with Jeopardy clues.
posted by griseus at 4:30 PM on March 10, 2011

This might be too specific, but in Oregon environmental science, there's an awfully good chance that any given rock is basalt and any given tree is a Douglas-Fir.
posted by dialetheia at 4:33 PM on March 10, 2011

In (American) political science classes, you have better-than-you-should odds with "the Electoral College" and "separation of powers."
posted by SMPA at 4:36 PM on March 10, 2011

The most common Jeopardy! answer is "What is Australia?"
posted by dayintoday at 4:37 PM on March 10, 2011

In graph theory, your best bet is the Petersen graph.
posted by yaymukund at 4:37 PM on March 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Hmm, I wonder about 2^n-1. If you asked me to give an answer to a random computer science question without knowing what it was, I would guess "order n log n."

This is not an academic discipline, but the two most likely answers to a question beginning "What is this classical piece of music" are 1) the first movement of Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 in G and 2) Carmina Burana. Although that Requiem for a Dream piece is gaining fast.
posted by dfan at 4:40 PM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

In legal matters: It depends. Because generally the way the law applies does depend on the particular facts presented.
posted by bearwife at 4:42 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

In any sort of computer support, the answer is almost always "reboot."
posted by bondcliff at 4:45 PM on March 10, 2011 [8 favorites]

Lupus, if the medical symptoms are scary, cannot be explained, or treated effectively.
posted by jchaw at 4:47 PM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I remember when doing my marketing/ business studies degree a pretty safe answer would have been Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It seemed to come up in every single course, yet I'm not sure if there's much actual proof of it being valid.
posted by AuroraSky at 4:49 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a Geology major in college (a major I eventually, and foolishly, abandoned), my standard answer for any question that stumped me was "schist." It may not have been the right answer, but it usually got a giggle at least.
posted by The World Famous at 4:50 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

In linguistic anthropology (at least the school of ling anth that I'm in): dialogism. Or indexicality.

(Granted, you aren't administered a lot of tests when you study linguistic anthropology, so there isn't really a context in which a "default answer" could exist. But when I was reading for my quals, it seemed like 80% of the time, one of the main points of an article or book was that the linguistic phenomenon in question was dialogic, though the term "dialogic" wasn't always used.)
posted by enlarged to show texture at 4:50 PM on March 10, 2011

My favorite answer: huh?
posted by jchaw at 4:51 PM on March 10, 2011

In music production, use less reverb.
posted by The World Famous at 4:51 PM on March 10, 2011

If it's a calculus problem, take the derivative of a function and set it equal to 0. Failing that, integrate that function over the given interval.

If an inequality is involved, see what the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality gives you.

If it's a question on an analysis qualifying exam where I went to graduate school, you'd probably employ Littlewood's three principles.
posted by King Bee at 5:07 PM on March 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

"That's a good question, thanks for asking it"
posted by 2bucksplus at 5:08 PM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, and reading the second part of your question:

1. Taking the derivative of a function and setting it equal to 0 will allow you to find the so-called "critical points". These are the points where the derivative either is 0 or does not exist; since the derivative measures how the function is changing and calculus is all about dynamic relationships between things, if there's a question on a calculus test you don't know how to do, showing that you know something about dynamic relationships will get you "partial credit".

2. The Cauchy-Schwarz inequality is just a beautiful inequality in mathematics which appears in so many different areas that it probably has something to do with the inequality problem you're working on (not really, but did you check?).

3. My graduate school had a really heavy-on-the-measure theory based analysis curriculum (reminiscent of the Bourbaki style of abstraction, sort of). Littlewood's 3 principles sort of took all that rigor and expressed very succinctly and beautifully (at least to me) what the hell was going on with all of this "almost everywhere" and "almost uniformly" and all this such garbage. Once I understood the principles, you realize that "basically everything will behave nicely, you just need to massage it a bit".
posted by King Bee at 5:16 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

A wizard did it.
posted by The World Famous at 5:19 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Language has functions besides reference. That fact alone conditions nearly any argument ever made about grammar by a linguist.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:25 PM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

When critiquing picture books, the answer is often "didactic" or "slight".
posted by cider at 5:37 PM on March 10, 2011

Law: "It depends on the circumstances".
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:48 PM on March 10, 2011

Mechanical engineering: design for 3x the maximum stress.
posted by scruss at 6:12 PM on March 10, 2011

Default answer for any question about hockey in the original Trivial Pursuit: Gordy Howe.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:26 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

In American history, many different things in many different time periods can be explained by the rise of the middle class. The middle class seems to have been more or less permanently rising, and this caused most things that happened between about 1650 and about 1970.
posted by craichead at 6:26 PM on March 10, 2011 [7 favorites]

Astronomy: Magnetic Fields or Turbulence. Those are the usual suspects that unexplained phenomena are frequently blamed on.
posted by kiltedtaco at 6:31 PM on March 10, 2011

When I took population genetics, we joked that the answer to nearly everything was "linkage disequlibrium." But this may be specific to my professor.
posted by pemberkins at 6:34 PM on March 10, 2011

to follow on bearwife -- in law, "it depends" isn't just the bs answer. It is the actual answer when followed by as much analysis as the judge or client wants to hear. The answer is always "it depends."
posted by freshwater at 6:36 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Things seem to come and go in waves of popularity too. I'm in the field of evolutionary genetics (e.g. phylogenetics) and at different times the every-time responses included:

~ Long branch attraction!
~ Incomplete lineage sorting!
~ Pseudogenes!!

Of course, these are still the answers to quite a few problems for real.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 6:42 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

In my Trivial Pursuit: 1960s Edition the best guess answer is usually Nikita Khrushchev.
posted by milk white peacock at 6:45 PM on March 10, 2011

Well, for almost any question involving a novel you'll get somewhere (and get some nerd points) by invoking the distinction between sujet and fabula, the time and order of the telling as opposed to the chronology of the story itself.
posted by RogerB at 7:03 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

In my environmental biology classes, the answer to 90% of the essays was "human influence"

I aced that shit
posted by ghostbikes at 7:24 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

In film preservation: Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"
posted by estherbester at 7:33 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

In the original Trivial Pursuit, questions about entertainment were likely to have the answer "Burt Reynolds."
posted by Jagz-Mario at 7:39 PM on March 10, 2011

In molecular biology the answer to pretty much every "but how do we prove it?" question is make a mutant! Sorry, the exclamation point is there because I had a class where the teacher got a huge kick out of us yelling it in unison at him every time he'd ask the question. It permanently has an exclamation point in my head.
posted by magnetsphere at 7:54 PM on March 10, 2011

New Testament Theology: the answer is always Jesus.
posted by KirkpatrickMac at 7:56 PM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

A slightly more pedantic version of the mol.biol. answer is; knockout/knockdown, rescue with wildtype and mutants. Bonus points: (double/triple) knockout/knockdown the entire family.
posted by porpoise at 8:01 PM on March 10, 2011

For EMTs and First Responders: assess ABC

Hydrogen bonding is definitely good for chem exams.

For sources of experimental error in a chem lab: imprecision and inaccuracy.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 8:04 PM on March 10, 2011

A philosophy professor once told me the secret to philosophy.

Take any philosopher: Plato, Aristotle, Kierkegaard, Kant… doesn't matter; whomever you pick, the person that best embodies that philosopher's notion of good is themselves.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:05 PM on March 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

More mechanical engineering: enough torque to break the bolt minus a half turn.
posted by jet_silver at 8:07 PM on March 10, 2011

(Christian) Old Testament Theology: the answer is still Jesus, you just have to show more work.
posted by hishtafel at 8:13 PM on March 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

In consulting:
1. Charge 2-3x your hourly rate.
2. Get a deposit.
3. Fire the client.
posted by acoutu at 8:17 PM on March 10, 2011

I'm a logician, and I'm often teaching an undergraduate math/logic course. The answer to how to prove something you don't know how to prove is pretty much always: "Try proof by contradiction."

This is only half a joke. If you're proving something in propositional logic (natural deduction, to be specific), if you don't need proof by contradiction, there's always a fairly obvious, direct proof that can be gotten to just by following the structure of all the formulas involved. So all the tricky problems require proof by contradiction.
posted by ErWenn at 8:27 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Journalism: Write a paragraph that simply includes the who, what, where, when, why and how and no extraneous details. "The Lakers beat the Celtics yesterday in Boston, 98-97, as Kobe Bryant hit a last-second shot in overtime, sending the Lakers to the playoffs." Boom, done.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:29 PM on March 10, 2011

On a related note, when I did college bowl trivia, my favorite events were the "trash" tournaments, which featured primarily pop-culture content, but which also often featured silly or bizarre variants on the standard trivia question format. So one standard college bowl bonus question was the 30-20-10 bonus, where your team is given a sequence of clues to guess an answer, starting with a difficult clue for 30 points, moving to an easier clue for 20, and then to the easiest clue for 10 points. There's no penalty for guessing wrong, so you always would make some guess (often "Smith", if you have absolutely nothing to go on). In the trash tournaments, you would sometimes get a 40-30-20-10-5-1 bonus. The 5-point clue was usually very easy, and the 1-point clue would be utterly ridiculous like "The George Washington Bridge was named after him." Normally bonuses max out at 30 points, so the 40-point "clue" was usually impossible (e.g. "For 40 points, name this philosopher."), and just a chance to make a joke guess. I was not very good at trivia of any form, but I still pride myself that I once successfully guessed at a 40-point clue "Name this sport."

The correct answer, of course, was "jai alai".
posted by ErWenn at 8:40 PM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

English literature: Alexander Pope.
posted by ottereroticist at 8:43 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Extra credit should be awarded for actually understanding what the term postmodernism in art refers to and its relation to the tenets of modernism, but it's the main descriptive term anyone who wants to look like they know anything about contemporary art throws around. It's an excellent word to use in order to appear knowledgeable about art because there's the whole meta snake eating its own tail thingie going on whereby the prevalent misunderstandings/misuses of the word by its speakers is an instructive example of a "no singular point of view, no one true interpretation" theoretical stance.

Lots of chances for both the speaker and the listener to feel smart while not really having to think very deeply or consider anything concrete or specific in regards to any given work of art, other than acknowledging we now live in a time of postmodernity and therefore all contemporary work is postmodern, followed by either sage head nods or regretful head shakes.
posted by stagewhisper at 9:05 PM on March 10, 2011

For criminology/criminal justice, I'd say: relative economic deprivation.

Most of the variability in both offending and (to a lesser extent) victimisation at some level is related to who is poorer than whom. This is true for both sociological (the relative positions of groups within a society) and psychological (correlates of individual differences in criminogenic traits) explanations of offending.

It's not always going to be the most correct answer, of course, and it largely means you have to ignore the more interesting question of whether it's a cause or a result, but I think it fits the scope of the OPs question.
posted by damonism at 9:40 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Accountancy - depending on who asks the question:

New trainee - what do you think it is?

Client - it depends. Tell me more...

Partner - I'll look into it and get back to you
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:47 PM on March 10, 2011

The best default answer for a math test is zero. I actually once was a TA for a professor who routinely wrote exams where three or four out of the five problems would have "zero" as the answer, although this is unusual.

(For probability problems in particular, the best default answer is 1/2. If the probability of something were zero or one, that would be obvious, so split the difference.)
posted by madcaptenor at 9:54 PM on March 10, 2011

Awesome. So far I've learned about first aid ABC, dialogism, Walter Benjamin, Bach's Cello Suites, lupus, the Petersen graph, and, via a related wikipedia link, the technical definition of snark.

Also there's a bunch of other stuff I tried to learn about but couldn't understand.

Thanks guys!
posted by molybdenum at 11:08 PM on March 10, 2011

This is going to sound flip but it's not-

I'm a MA student in Jewish studies, and the answer is always "The Holocaust." Even in Bible classes. Totally anacronistic and always the answer.
posted by MrsHarper at 11:13 PM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Film studies: Fellini.

Early childhood education: Piaget.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:30 AM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I brainstormed a few more with my girlfriend (a high school math teacher) last night.

High School Trigonometry:


or less flippantly: "use the unit circle"

High School Algebra:
"get it equal to zero and factor"

High School Geometry:

SAS (as in the theorem that states that if two triangles have the same length on two adjacent sides and the angle between them, then they are congruent)

Set Theory:

"the empty set"


"the Catalan numbers"

If you thought the Fibonacci numbers were ubiquitous, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Recursion/Computability Theory:


This is the technique where you take a definition and you apply it to itself, and it crops up everywhere in the subject.

Perhaps most famously, it's at the core of the proof that there's no algorithm that can solve the Halting Problem. (The Halting Problem is the problem of taking a given program and deciding whether or not it will eventually finish executing (as opposed to getting stuck in an infinite loop somewhere).) The proof is actually pretty straightforward, once you get use to the diagonalization:
If you had an algorithm that could tell you whether a given program would terminate on a particular input, then you could write a program (call it P) that takes a program x as input and first decides whether or not x would terminate when run on the input x (would it terminate if it was applied to itself?). If x run on x would terminate, then P goes off into a infinite loop. If x run on x would not terminate, then P outputs 1. Then you ask: what happens if you run P on P? Dun-dun-DUN!
posted by ErWenn at 5:02 AM on March 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

In the original Taboo game, one of the topics you had to get your teammate to guess was "rigor mortis". Now, my siblings and I had no idea what this meant. So, we all agreed that if you got the rigor mortis card, you just say "it's that one thing", and your teammate was to say "rigor mortis!" immediately or face the ultimate penalty (which was your teammate saying "c'mon, man!!!").
posted by King Bee at 5:34 AM on March 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

In psych research, it seems like the answers are always "random assignment" or "add more participants".

In social psych, it's pretty simple to just go with "the situation" as the cause for anything, or if you need a historical reference, something having to do with Hitler/WWII as spurring the field on or being a good example of foot in the door, prejudice, etc.
posted by bizzyb at 6:27 AM on March 11, 2011

Erwen you should really be teaching them intuitionistic propositional calculus, then you really wouldn't ever need to deal with any of this nonsense. Or, failing that, if you really insist on believing in ridiculous things like excluded middle, at least formalize your proofs in a sequent calculus style where it's more natural.

Oh, and for an on-topic response, in my research I've found that Gödel's Second Incompleteness Theorem turns out to be the answer to a lot of my questions.
posted by Dr. Eigenvariable at 6:53 AM on March 11, 2011

Default answer for any question about hockey in the original Trivial Pursuit: Gordy Howe.

Default answer for any question about football in the original Trivial Pursuit: Vince Lombardi.

For people who are looking for stuff in the library via Google the answer is always "If you're looking for a set of words together, make sure you combine them using quotes" This solves about 75% of all search problems and typos take care of 23% of the rest [if someone is looking for a known thing]

For tech support it's usually "turn it off and then on again" and/or "Do it while I watch you" I've actually got people convinced that I have some sort of magnetic properties that fix computers but really they're just more careful to follow steps when I'm watching.
posted by jessamyn at 7:38 AM on March 11, 2011

Combinatorics: "the Catalan numbers"

There's an exercise in Stanley, Enumerative Combinatorics volume II: 66 combinatorial interepretations of the Catalan numbers. (And later on, nine algebraic ones.) Every so often he posts more on his web page; currently the addendum is at a couple hundred. Not surprisingly most of them are fairly simple transformations of other ones, but still these are non-trivial enough that they've appeared in the published literature.

(It's a shame I don't have an audience to inflict a talk about some of these on.)
posted by madcaptenor at 8:10 AM on March 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Certain genres of literature, minor characters die of drunkenness quite a bit, widowing their wives who are forced to demean themselves by working or begging.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:31 AM on March 11, 2011

In I.T. it is "then something magic happens" or "auto-magically', as in:

We will extract the data from the legacy system, then something magic happens, and we will then load it into the testing environment.

Extra CPU cycles are provisioned auto-magically if we hit our threshold.
posted by jasondigitized at 8:53 AM on March 11, 2011

crosswords tend to have a set of words they use constantly because of the letters involved. examples include mai tai, esau, alee, jai (the clue's always "__ alai"), ere, nee.
posted by ifjuly at 9:36 AM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Reckless gambling" describes plot points in the stories of Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov.
posted by Iridic at 11:44 AM on March 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Library Science: Ranganathan.

(Surprisingly, he's an even better answer than Dewey, because everybody knows about Dewey. Mentioning Ranganathan makes you look like an expert.)
posted by Horace Rumpole at 11:54 AM on March 11, 2011

In public administration theory, mentioning the "politics-administration dichotomy" (from a seminal 1887 Woodrow Wilson essay) will get you pretty far. Also almost always relevant: the tension between efficiency and equity/democracy.
posted by aka burlap at 11:56 AM on March 11, 2011

Exercise Physiology: Deadlift more
posted by tiburon at 4:43 PM on March 11, 2011

Statistics: It depends; what is the exact research question?
posted by tiburon at 4:44 PM on March 11, 2011

@madcaptenor: holy fucking hell. That is outstanding.
posted by King Bee at 9:12 PM on March 11, 2011

Achaeology: it's a votive offering and/or ritual.
posted by Helga-woo at 9:57 AM on March 14, 2011

While hydrogen bonding is a good Chemistry answer, I'd argue that steric hinderance is the most common explanation.
posted by cholly at 4:22 AM on March 15, 2011

In designing software: add another level of indirection.
posted by orthogonality at 10:56 PM on March 30, 2011

In troubleshooting any electronic device: reboot.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:30 PM on March 31, 2011

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