There they go again
“They” being the anti-expert experts who want to convince us to trust their expertise in exposing “experts” as nothing more than a bunch of idiotic frauds who make a living pretending to be “experts” when, in fact, their expertise isn’t any greater than you, me, or the man behind that tree.
(This last is a reference to today’s bit of political trivia. It’s from the late, longtime Democratic Senator from Louisiana, Russell Long, who so memorably said, “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree!” They’re still saying it in the august halls of the U.S. Congress.)
Back to the “expert” thing. This tirade against experts cites instances in which so-called “experts” got things wrong. Horribly, embarrassingly wrong, as in the instance cited in the headline: “Wine experts confused a $30 bottle with one worth $500.”
In our cynical, dubious, skeptical country, where the “experts” in finance, housing and other fields really did get everything wrong, there’s now a tendency to hate anyone who professes to have any expertise at all. This is a branch of the war on knowledge we see being waged by a certain span of the political/cultural spectrum. According to it, common sense is the only source of true knowledge; the more “book learning” one has, the less that person should be trusted (unless the book happens to be The Bible.)
Well, I’m not going to get all political here, but let’s examine the truth behind that startling “$30 bottle with one worth $500” headline, and then see if we can possibly get wine experts off the hook, despite them pulling such a boner.
The bizarre tasting occurred when a Frenchman, Frederic Brochet, put a middling Bordeaux into two bottles, one labeled cheaply and the other bearing a Grand Cru tier. When he presented the bottles to 57 “expert tasters,” they praised the Grand Cru and knocked the cheap bottle. (You can also read a version of this here.)
I first have to point out that the coverage of M. Brochet’s experiment that I’ve been able to find on the Internet is very spotty. It seems like there was an original article, and all subsequent ones borrowed from it, with the result that the conclusion is like a game of telephone, in which the original, authentic message gets hopelessly garbled by the end. For example, it’s not clear who Brochet’s “expert” wine tasters were, nor is it clear how many of the 57 “experts” screwed up. However, I’ll accept the premise that a bunch of tasters, who knew a thing or two about wine, were deceived.
There should be absolutely nothing alarming or scandalous about this. It shouldn’t even be surprising. If the point is to aver that “experts” can be wrong, then let us accept that as obvious, and move on. If the point is to ridicule the concept of expertise, then the authors of the various articles are going too far. There really is such a thing as expertise: in wine, in finance, in science. People with a resentment toward educated authority are really skating on very thin ice, because they put themselves in the position of being ideological Luddites, and yet when they are in serious need of expertise (for example, medical, or a good plumber, or expert firefighters, who were in short supply in Gov. Perry’s Texas during the recent wildfires due to budget cuts), suddenly their mistrust of experts disappears, proving the old adage: Where you stand depends on where you sit.
When it comes to wine expertise, some people know a whole lot more than most other people. They can make mistakes, especially when being subverted at the hands of a deceiver like M. Brochet (who seems analagous to Descartes’s evil spirit, which made him believe what was untrue). But in general, the average wine person looking for advice is wise to trust a wine expert with a proven track record.
Just because an unidentified group of “experts” got a tasting wrong doesn’t mean that every expert wine evaluation should be mistrusted. That is a very stupid, drastic conclusion to draw, the kind a thinking person should avoid. I believe in objective knowledge, in study and in expertise. I like to think I possess some wine expertise. I might or might not have been fooled had I participated in M. Brochet’s tasting. So what if I were? It would have meant nothing.