It's often a simple case of not getting to the buzzer quickly enough. But that didn't explain a recent shocking revelation on University Challenge.
"Imagine knowing who Chomsky is but not who Kate Bush is," tweeted Revd Richard Coles during a recent edition.
Richard Coles - cleric, broadcaster and former chart topping musician with the Commmunards - said more in that tweet than the 140 characters allows. Harbouring a deep and incisive intellect he is also well in touch with the pulse of contemporary life.
But those team members of University Challenge, the compelling quiz show that gives a platform to what many regard as the highest academic intellects in the land, actually did many of us a favour.
By recognising an American expert in analytical philosophy but failing to recognise the distinctive tones of one of the most illustrious artistes of our time they enabled us to dig into our smug comfort zones and say "how did they not know that?"
How can the cream of the student crop deal with the complexities of quantum physics or the inner mechanics of Chaucer yet seem to be ignorant of some of the most brilliant contributions made to contemporary culture? How can anyone not recognise the voice of Kate Bush? Kate Bush who sang about one of the most iconic books of all time, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights?
Maybe it's a time thing.
It was once said that had Shakespeare been alive today he would have been scripting Coronation St. Perhaps Kate Bush is before her time.
But can intelligence really be measured in terms of those starters for ten?
The same week that Kate Bush flopped on the buzzer a study showed that footballers can perform better than PhD students on certain cognitive tasks. This, as you might expect, is being interpreted in parts of the media as evidence that footballers are more intelligent than PhD students.
Guardian reader and former international footballer Graham Le Saux once took part on that other celebrated platform of intellectual challenges, Celebrity Mastermind. Sitting in the black chair he paid credit to David Beckham's intellect by suggesting that his mind can do on the pitch what no computer was capable of - although some might argue this is perhaps more true of Wayne Rooney.
So to find and celebrate the best brains in the country what we really need is a cross cultural form of University Challenge - a Universal Challenge, if you like. One that poses questions and tasks that challenge our minds in a different way. A challenge designed to pit the likes of Gail Trimble the Oxford Latin scholar, who scored more points on University Challenge than her three team-mates combined with the mental horsepower of Wayne Rooney.
Or we can simply resort to the Ricky Gervais method of being part of the panel on University Challenge.
In an interview on BBC Radio 2 he once confessed to being bemused by many of the questions but takes part by attempting to guess who is going to buzz first.
One thing is for sure - invite Revd Richard Coles on the quiz team or football team - and you'd guarantee to be a winner.