Blog: Thinking Small

20 Questions

An excerpt from my upcoming paper on the role of scale in scientific classification:

In the car-trip game 20 Questions, one player thinks of an object and other players take turns asking yes-or-no questions (up to 20 in all) to figure out what the object is. Whoever guesses correctly first wins, and if no one gets it, the player who thought of the object wins. One of the most common and, it is generally agreed, most effective starting questions for the game is ``Is it smaller than a bread box?'' The utility of this question at partitioning possible objects in a 20-questions game illustrates just how powerful a role scale plays in underwriting classification. Of course, the bread-box question is only actually effective when one knows about how big a bread box is. For those whose childhoods included neither 20 Questions nor bread boxes, perhaps a better partition here would be "Is it smaller than the 10-volume Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy?''