subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

The wine critic as “god”



“Proof by ethos” is a term from Artistotle, referring to a method of persuasion, by appealing to a speaker’s authority and credibility. In science, according to a recent paper [more on this later], it refers to a situation in which “a scientist’s status in the community is so high that everybody else takes this person’s calculations or results for granted. In other words, nobody questions the validity of that scientist’s claim because of the particular ethos that is associated with that person.”

It is thus more or less identical to the more familiar Latin term, argumentum ad verecundiam, or “argument from authority,” which is often cited as a major potential fallacy in argument: One cites an “authority” to prove one’s position, but in that particular case the so-called “authority” is wrong, so the person citing him also is wrong.

Both concepts—“proof by ethos” and “argument from authority”—are natural to humans. None of us can know everything; we need to trust others to inform us about things we don’t know, or don’t understand sufficiently. It is, in fact, one of the glories of humankind that we are social and trusting enough to turn to the advice of others, sometimes for things that impact our very lives, on the very fragile basis of belief. So“proof by ethos” and “argument from authority” are not bad in themselves. But they must be taken in context: if the “high status authority” we listen to is mistaken, or deliberately misleading, all kinds of bad consequences may ensue.

The recent scientific paper I referred to, concerning the age of the Earth, points out how easy it is even for trained academicians to succumb to the perils of “proof by ethos.” The famous Nobel laureate, Richard Feynman, once postulated, in a lecture that was transcribed, that the center of the Earth must be younger than the Earth’s surface by “one or two days” due to the relativistic effects of gravitational time dilation.

(Read the paper yourself. You can skip over the mathematical formulae and pass from the Introduction to the Discussion and Conclusion. Fascinating, paradoxical stuff.)

However, the paper’s authors discovered, through simple back-of-the-envelope calculations, that “years” should have been substituted for “days.” The center of the Earth, that is, is one or two years younger than its surface, not one or two days. “[E]ither the lecturer [Feynman] or the transcribers had it wrong,” the authors concluded. Feynman died in 1988.

The paper’s authors decided that any of Feyman’s colleagues or even his grad students could easily have discerned Feynman’s mistake (if, indeed, it was his and not the transcribers’). That they did not, and for so many years, is a prime example of the danger of “proof by ethos.” Nobody realized that the “days” citation was wrong, because everybody implicitly trusted Feynman so much that it seemed silly to second-guess his conclusion.

We see, in wine reviewing, much this same “proof by ethos” or “argument from authority.” Substitute the words “wine critic” for “scientist” and the opening quote in this post becomes “a wine critic‘s status in the community is so high that everybody else takes this person’s [reviews] for granted.”

That’s how it works, isn’t it. We’ve reached a situation in which we—the collective “we” of the wine industry and marketplace—largely accept the “truths” of the critics because, after all, “they”—the critics—possess an “ethos” that places them beyond doubt. So haloed are the critics in the glow of their own infallibility (or the infallibility we impute to them) that their pronouncements have the power of the edicts of a shaman. It is the particular quality of humans that we elevate a select few from our own midst to this priesthood. Unsure of ourselves, irresolute in how to negotiate the world, we confer high status upon them, and then lay our belief at their feet. Only humans need gods. I’ve been that wizard behind the curtain, though, and I can assure you that even the critics, the high and mighty, have feet of clay, and will remain “gods” only so long as “we” so elect them.

  1. Maybe wine lovers should start questioning critics. It’s about time someone – anyone – question Parker or Laube (or even Heimoff). They’ve had a free ride all these years. I’m glad you’re on board with this new approach!

  2. Bob Henry says:

    The general populace doesn’t question “authority figures” because they lack the academic training/knowledge on most subjects under discussion and debate.

    But everyone has the same senses to experience a glass of wine.

    Critics may have better developed their powers of observation than the general populace. Better developed their sense of discrimination. But the “gap” between the “experts” and the hoi polloi isn’t that great.

    Which is why “citizen journalists” wine bloggers have expanded on the Web like kudzu.

    Everyone is a critic. Everyone has an opinion.

    But not everyone has an “informed” opinion.

    Those 10 years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice that Malcolm Gladwell reported on in “Outliers” still matters.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    . . . and then there is this: academics and scientists/engineers writing for trade journals are subject to “peer review.”

    Unlike the wine press. They don’t submit their writings to other critics for validation.

    (Arguably the closest paid print media writers come to having their work “vetted” is when dealing with fact checkers and editors.)

    With the de-monetization [*] of Web content, which self-published wine critics have the financial luxury of hiring fact checkers and editors?

    [* ]

  4. Bob Henry says:

    The “financially perilous profession” of self-employed writers is chronicled in this Atlantic magazine piece by Neal Gabler:

    “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans”

Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts