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:
- 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.
- People think experts’ opinion of “good”, even if not completely the same as theirs, will be highly correlated, and so is better than nothing.
- 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.