07 March 2008

Against the bias

[2001 star child; copyright MGM]On two of the major wine fora (here, here, and here, if you’re unduly burdened with free time and a strong stomach), strident arguments about how best to identify and eliminate bias have spiraled – as they always do – out of control.

Here’s a thought: how about we admit that this asks the impossible, and go back to the much more sensible practice of asking critics to be good?

I’ve already said far more than I ever should on the subject here, so I’ll let that stand as the pro-bias manifesto. But I’m curious about another facet of this endless debate: why do we care so much? Why is the potential for pure philosophical objectivity so beloved among consumers, especially when it’s impossible to achieve?

I believe that we recognize our own flaws as objective observers. We know that we can only make a attempt to be unbiased, but recognize that no matter how hard we try, we’re unlikely to succeed.

However, we exalt the critic (in my opinion unduly so), which follows from the subordination of our own opinion to that of the purported expert in whichever field of criticism we’re concerned with. The critic, in other words, is supposed to be more right than we are. In the act of subordinating our judgment to that of another, we justify our decision on the basis that the critic has superior knowledge that we have neither the time nor the inclination to acquire. This is often true, but it’s also irrelevant.

Knowledge, which begets accuracy, is a fundamental skill for any critic, to be sure. But it’s not what makes them a critic, it’s what makes them a writer or a journalist. A critic may do one or both of those things, but he or she also – and primarily – deals in opinions. It’s the utility of these opinions that determines a critic’s success or failure. By this I do not mean that the critic with the largest number of agreements “wins” – that’s patently ridiculous given that criticism is inherently subjective – but that the critic’s output must, in some sense, be useful to others.

Thus, while we may justifiably subject our knowledge to those with a superior breadth or depth of it, we somewhat less justifiably subject our opinion to that of the critic. This is not inherently misguided, because an informed opinion can indeed be more valuable than an uninformed one, but it is similarly irrelevant. A better-justified but still subjective response to an object of criticism does not mean that the less-justified opinion is now incorrect for the holder of that opinion. This is not an argument against the supremacy of fact and reason, both of which must remain paramount, but instead a restatement of this simple principle: just because you like something doesn’t mean I like it too. Shouldn’t that be obvious?

Wine appreciation is subjective. It cannot be otherwise. So for a person to allow another’s subjective judgments to hold sway over their own, they must posit the existence of a superior subjectivity. Except that doesn’t make any sense from a definitional standpoint – subjectivity is inherently leveling – and so the next step is to assume that a critic must now be objective. This is lunacy, but it’s what many people appear to believe.

If a critic is truly objective, then they must be free from all external constraints on their judgment. And this is how we wade into the miasma of bias, for if such a mythical creature as the objective critic existed, he or she would obviously be fundamentally and absolutely free of any influences other than those contained within the object of criticism. No prior experiences, no pre-formed opinions, no external motivators (a nearby winemaker, a pleasant dinner, an enthusiastic companion, the label), and certainly no generalized opinions on what does and does not constitute quality. Nothing. In other words, wine criticism in a sensory-deprivation tank.

Taken to its logical conclusion, of course, this also means that such an objective critic can only ever review a single wine. Because, as a critic, they must render a judgment on that wine. Having done so, they have now constructed a preliminary definition of quality. The next wine cannot help but be tainted by this construction, and thus bias has been introduced.

It sounds ridiculous, of course, and yet it is exactly where the anti-bias journey reaches its inevitable conclusion: a being that transcends their humanity, has no contact with anyone or anything that could influence their opinion, works just once, and then retires. Hopefully to somewhere where they can be a person.

No…better to let our critics be human, to accept that they (as we) are biased and cannot be otherwise, and to judge them not on conceptual philosophies but on the quality of their work. In other words, to be critics ourselves; critics of the critics, with all our own biases fully and gloriously intact.

2 comments:

Jeff said...

"So for a person to allow another’s subjective judgments to hold sway over their own, they must posit the existence of a superior subjectivity."

Great post, I had never really thought of it that way before.

As to your question about the desirability of objectivity among consumers, I guess I just like the idea of getting an opinion of a product I want as disconnected from external influences as possible. For example, I would never recommend wines from a producer here in town because I have seen how they do things behind the scenes, it's disgusting. I want to know before I spend my money that it is going to be something I will potentially enjoy, not conned into buying because the critic is buddies with the producer.

Jeff

thor iverson said...

I guess I just like the idea of getting an opinion of a product I want as disconnected from external influences as possible

I "like the idea" too. But I've already explained why I don't think it's likely or practical. There are good reasons to avoid certain entanglements, but those reasons are mostly not because they make it impossible to be a good critic. Instead, they're about making a show of convincing a suspicious public that one critic is more trustworthy than the next. In other words, trust based not on the actual work, but on the business plan. That seems a little misguided to me.

I want to know before I spend my money that it is going to be something I will potentially enjoy, not conned into buying because the critic is buddies with the producer.

Well, OK, but read what you wrote there: you want "something I will potentially enjoy". If a critic recommends a wine and you enjoy it, does it actually matter if he's buddies with the winemaker or not? Do you enjoy it less if he is?

A critic could be completely free of entanglements and be utterly useless to you if they can't recommend something you like (or more accurately, describe it in a way that you can rely upon to make a decision), right? So it's not the entanglements that matter. What you should actually care about as a consumer are the results, not what goes on behind the scenes.

If the response to this is, "yes, but a lack of bias improves my chances of getting useful results from that critic," I'd ask: how do you know this? If you find great utility in, say, Allen Meadows, do you actually know if he'd be less useful if he worked part time for Drouhin, or was married to a Montille? You can't really compare Allen Meadows to Clive Coates and say, "well, Meadows is better because he's more independent," because it may instead be that Meadows is simply a better critic than Coates, and would do better work no matter what his entanglements. Similarly, many would identify Coates as a better critic of Burgundy than, say, Robert Parker...and what then? Would someone argue that the biases and relationships make him better than the guy who's more free of them? Again, it's not about those influences, it's about the results.