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Why experts?

March 5, 2012

I recently read a Bloomberg article (via Naked Capitalism) about wine critics and how they have better powers of taste than we normal people do.

One of the things I love about this article is how it’s both completely dead obvious and at the same time totally outrageous when you think about it.

Obvious because when we see wine experts going on and on about what they can discern in their tiny sip, we know they either have magical powers or they’re lying, and since some of them can do this shit blindfolded we will assume they aren’t lying.

Outrageous because if you think about it, that means we follow the advice of people whose taste is provably different from ours. In other words, the word of experts is fundamentally irrelevant to us, and yet we care about it anyway.

My question is, why do we care?

Just to go over a couple of ground rules. First, yes, let’s assume that the wine experts really do have powers of discernment that are incredible and unusual, even though we have to trust an expert on that, which may seem contradictory. The truth is, this isn’t the first study that’s shown that, and I for one have hung out with these guys and they really do taste that minerally soil in the wine. I’m not even jealous.

Second, I’m not saying you care about wine experts’ opinions, but lets face it, lots of people do. And you could say it’s because of the performance that the experts give when they smell the wine and describe it, and I’ll agree that some of them can be poets, and that’s nice to see. But the truth is they also rate the wines with a number, and these numbers are printed in books, and lots of people carry these books around to wine shops and devote themselves to only buying wines with sufficiently high numbers, even though those people probably don’t themselves have the mouth smarts to tell the difference.

Now that we’ve framed the question, we can go ahead and make guesses as to why. Here are mine:

  1. People are hoping that they themselves are also supertasters. This kind of seems like the most obvious one, but I can’t help think that true supertasters would not need other people’s opinions at all.
  2. People think experts’ opinion of “good”, even if not completely the same as theirs, will be highly correlated, and so is better than nothing.
  3. People want to be seen drinking wine that supertasters would drink, as a sort of cachet thing.

I think #3 above is pretty much the definition of snob, and I think it exists but is not the major reason people do things (but I could be wrong). I’m guessing it’s more typically #2, but even so it doesn’t explain the really expensive high-end wine market’s huge appeal, unless there are way more supertasters than I thought out there.

I think this question, of why people listen to expert advice even when it’s mostly irrelevant, is an important one, because it happens so much in our culture, and clearly not just about wine.

I for one am attracted to the idea of going one step further and ignoring expert advice. I see a natural progression: first, people are ignorant, second, they learn what experts think, and third, they ignore experts and go with their gut.

But even sexier is the idea of never listening to experts at all: skip step two. Am I the only person who thinks that’s sexy? I mean, I guess it mostly means you’re wasting your time, but it also comes out in the end with less herd mentality.

I think this desire I have of skipping the expert advice is very tied into why I despise the echo chamber of the web and how we are profiled online and how our environment is constantly updated and tailored to our profile. It’s in some sense an expert opinion on what we’d like, given our behavior, and I hate the finiteness of that concept, possibly in part because I’ve designed models like that and I know how dumb they are.

Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts, and if I’ve missed any reasons why people like to hear partially relevant expert opinion.

Categories: data science
  1. March 5, 2012 at 7:49 am

    I disagree with the order you presented. I think it goes: first, people are ignorant, second, they realize what experts think doesn’t pertain to them and go with their gut, and third, their taste buds mature to the point that it correlates with what experts think.

    Experts’ advice is most valuable to wine tasters at an intermediate-and-above level who can actually discern between different wines but don’t have the capability or job description to try every wine on the market. Even then, it’s probably good to locate a handful of experts whose tastes agree with your own most of the time.

    I’m still in the second group here – what wine experts say doesn’t really affect me too much as I don’t drink enough wine to be able to tell the difference. I have a beer with dinner 3 or 4 times a week, though, so it’s good to follow friends’ advice on which ones are good. And really, friends that you drink with often are probably the best experts because you probably have similar tastes – and if you don’t, you know how they differ.

    XKCD had a good strip on this topic:

    http://xkcd.com/915/

    • March 5, 2012 at 9:03 am

      Great strip! And I agree with it :)

      I think you’re right to point out I didn’t consider the issue of “maturing taste buds.” But on the other hand I don’t want to exaggerate the extent to which taste buds mature- some people just will never be supertasters.

      Plus, even as people mature their taste buds, I’m not convinced they actually enjoy things more- they just learn more about how to describe their enjoyment. Indeed they may learn to love certain things more and certain things less. At least that’s my experience with something like music, where I’m a huge music lover with developed taste, but perhaps it’s different for different people.

  2. March 5, 2012 at 10:27 am

    Reason # 4
    One can always blame “the expert opinion” if the wine sucks. This a common ploy when an organizational leader doesn’t want to take the rap for a change he really wants to make; but, he wants cover if it fails. He/she hires a consultant, expert opinion, to take the heat if the scheme goes south. Same with the wine thingie.
    You seem to become more of an anarchist with each post. Could it be your independent wine tasting getting ahead of you?

    • March 5, 2012 at 4:33 pm

      Love it! I definitely missed that but it’s going in.

      And yes, I sound like an anarchist, but actually I’m just a super motherly curmudgeon.

      Cathy

  3. JS
    March 5, 2012 at 10:42 am

    Regarding wine: I don’t think my taste sensitivity will ever be good enough to distinguish between anything other than “like” and “disklike”, so my strategy is to go to the wine snob store and buy only from the “under $10″ shelf. That way, someone has already gone to the effort of eliminating anything that’s definitely bad, so I can be almost certain to find something in the “like” category.

    Regarding expertise in general: in skill learning, I think it’s worth the effort to try to figure out what experts have in common, then imitate those things. I’m not sure I’ve tried this in intellectual pursuits, but it definitely works in athletic skills. In this case, ignoring experts would lead to a much steeper learning curve.

  4. Dan L
    March 5, 2012 at 10:50 am

    This is one reason I have never understood the purpose of the critic of recorded music. If you listen to something, you can decide whether or not you like it, so why would you care what some music snob thinks of it? I do see how it might be interesting to learn something about the music you are listening to, but the typical rock album review puts a lot of emphasis on the issue of whether and why the album is good or bad, which seems totally pointless to me.

    On the other hand, I think that reviews of movies or food or wine make a lot sense, because you want to have a sense of how good they are *before* you take the trouble to experience them. I would assume that wine scores are mainly used in the following way: A person looks at a selection of merlots and has no idea what the difference is between them and chooses the one with the highest score. Makes sense to me. Or perhaps, a more educated wine consumer looks at a selection of wines that he has never tried, but is able to use expert tasting notes to guess which one he will like best. That also makes sense. I myself only drink about 3 glasses of wine per year, but I definitely like some of those glasses more than others. If I had the wine vocabulary to describe what it is I prefer (let’s say “smooth” for the sake of argument), I would definitely only drink “smooth” wines, and the snobby wine tasters can tell me which those are. On the other hand, if you are at a winery and tasting wines left and right, it seems ridiculous to consult wine ratings in deciding what to buy.

    However, there is still the issue of expert opinion vs general consensus opinion. As you point out, maybe wine experts just have different preferences from normal people. This is like whether you should listen to rotten tomatoes vs imdb for movies, or Zagat vs Michelin for restaurants. (I would actually be shocked if there was not already some yelp-like website that compiles wine reviews by ordinary people.) I think that expert opinion is slowly fading away in importance as we improve algorithms that give us personalized recommendations. I give personalized music recommendations an A (for Pandora) and personalized movie recommendations a B- (for Netflix etc.). I find it puzzling that Yelp doesn’t give personalized restaurant recommendations, since they already have the necessary data.

    • JSE
      March 5, 2012 at 1:12 pm

      How are you supposed to figure out whether you like a record or not just by listening to it?

      • Dan L
        March 5, 2012 at 5:44 pm

        This is the same question as: How are you supposed to figure out whether you like a wine or not just by drinking it?

  5. JSE
    March 5, 2012 at 11:00 am

    I’m with salasks here. When people are experts in X or connoisseurs in X, and are interested in making fine distinctions between types of X, the simplest explanation (though surely not the only explanation) is that those distinctions are real, and that I too would find it rewarding to make them, given enough experience with the kinds of X that the connoisseurs like. I think, for instance, that I am not wrong to think that some kinds of novels offer especially rich rewards that are not immediately apparent, and I think I learned how to access these rewards over time by reading lots of books that experts told me to read. I also think that classical music probably offers many rewards that by virtue of inexperience I’m unequipped to understand, and that if I spent a lot of time listening to recordings that classical music experts recommended to me, I’d probably have access to certain kinds of enjoyment that are currently unavailable to me.

    To some extent I feel I know enough about certain kinds of rock music to have developed expertise. Do I enjoy it more as a result? I don’t know, but if you want to be a revealed-preference type economist about it you could observe that I actually do pay money to go to rock shows fairly routinely, which most people don’t, and conclude from that that I enjoy rock music more than most people. (I don’t certify this conclusion as correct…)

    • Dan L
      March 5, 2012 at 5:42 pm

      I think I agree with you that being an expert in something allows you to enjoy it in a different way from non-experts. I think a simple way to illustrate this point is by considering young children, who might be thought of as extreme non-experts in everything. While they can certainly *enjoy* things likes movies, food, etc. as much as (if not more than) adults, it’s clear that adults are able to experience these things on a level that children cannot. This also illustrates that the level of “enjoyment” (in the case of wine, how yummy it is) is not really the whole point.

      But Cathy’s main point still stands: If you have zero interest in gaining some level of expertise, then there’s no point in listening to expert opinion (beyond basic information).

  6. Luis Miguel Solarte
    March 5, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    I remember the movie “Sideways”, lot of dumb people hate the merlot after they watched this movie, now they love pinot noir because pinot noir is the favorite wine of Giamatti’s character.

  7. Robert Smart
    March 5, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    Fashion, in various forms, is an aspect of human nature. It has a knack of finding self appointed leaders. And it obviously has a lot to do with the evolutionarily successful strategy of forming groups based on arbitrary criteria: We’re the group who “like this sort of music” / “drink this plonk” / “can pronounce ‘th'” / etc.

  8. Francisco
    March 6, 2012 at 10:54 am

    Apparently one can beat wine experts with simple linear regressions. I originally read about this in the book under review here:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/16/books/review/Leonhardt-t.html

    There are similar stories in other areas. If I remember correctly the book “Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases” has a chapter on linear regression beating med school admissions committees in predicting student performance.

  9. Otter
    March 25, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    The point of “really expensive high-end wine” is not “high-end wine”, but “really expensive”… evidence of wealth.

    Next time you are sitting across from somebody who is staring at your chest or whatever and buying “really expensive”, remember that con-artists dress and speak upscale when selling bridges, but dress and speak down when trolling for votes.

    Humans naturally and with excellent reason mimic the “successful”. The point of public schooling, public advertising, and public wine-tasting is to manipulate whom we see to be successful.

    Broadcast radio and television also claimed to be “constantly updated and tailored to our profile” (although the languages of their days used different words). Broadcast websites, like radio and television before, have already begun to adjust our profiles in exchange for payments from interested third-parties.

    We need experts. Those who wish to rent parasitically from our needs supply carefully chosen, or carefully trained, experts.

  10. May 12, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    I temped for a day at Diageo and I can tell you this. They had a 2-D chart plotting (quality sensitivity, price sensitivity) space. They thought specifically about at least three groups of wine buyers. One, very price sensitive and hardly price sensitive. That would be people who want to get drunk and wine is a possible option. Two, moderately price sensitive and very quality sensitive. That would be wine experts. Three, not at all price sensitive and moderately quality sensitive. I can’t think of a polite way to describe that group.

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