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On Experts, Reviews, and Drive By Shootings: Part 1

Recently, Roger Skoff offered up a caricature of an argument around the so-called "expert" and skewered some of the challenges that appertain thereto. Ahem. In short, Skoff argues that experts, generally speaking, aren't -- and that's okay because we're all still going to live. So, let's take a second, and talk a little about some of the hoopla around that post. What is a reviewer? Who are they? Why should we believe them? What is a review? What's in there and why? Is there a point? And does anyone care about these questions other than me? Ahem. Okay, let's assume that you care. With that out of the way, I think it makes sense to take some of these things apart and deal with them separately. Each seems to inform the other, to some extent, so I'll be bouncing around a bit. I'm going to start with a series of "what" questions, followed by "how" questions and end up in the vicinity of "why". That's pretty loose, but for the more rigorously inclined, I'm going to use the basic buckets in Philosophy as my over-arching themes. It'll be fun. I promise.

So, about the term ‘expert’. Going back to Merriam-Webster, an expert is someone “having, involving, or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience“. While Skoff took this to the absurd by exploring the idea of complete experience, I think most of us would agree that even if it were possible to experience everything and/or every permutation, it’s not practical and most definitely not required in order to acquire a level of “special skill or knowledge“. Exactly how much time/investment is required to reach that status is, of course, debatable. Malcolm Gladwell has argued that “mastery” of complex and cognitively demanding tasks, games, or skills requires about 10,000 hours of practice, but the exact number isn’t relevant. The point is that expertise (which I’m using interchangeably with ‘mastery’ at this point, because the distinction isn’t helpful here) isn’t accidental or innate — it’s hard-won. And once won, it has value. Or does it?

Skoff”s argument, unfortunately perhaps, was taken to imply that such value is rather limited in utility or scope. I’m going to look at that a little harder, but I’d like to offer that Skoff’s point, insofar as I took it, was to recall that in the high-end audio isn’t just a market segment, it’s a hobby, and the less involved you are, the less value the hobby has. Said another way: stop listening to experts and start listening to music. I think this is valid — especially since I think audio nerds tend to be particularly susceptible to some incredibly bad habits, but whatever.

Metaphysics

For those of you with your scorecards handy, metaphysics is a fancy way of looking at what there is. Said another way, with metaphysics, you’re taking some care to look at things and how they’re put together. So, let’s play philosopher and draw metaphorical line between “an expert” and the thing the expert produces, “a review”. And with that, I’ll stipulate that regardless of how the expert becomes one, being one doesn’t automatically mean the ensuing reviews are worth reading or have value.

There are several problems in this puzzle, and untangling them is not necessarily going to be straightforward. The first rope to saw at, as I see it, has to do with what a review actually is. Note that this is different from what a review should accomplish, and put that bit aside for a moment — it’s interesting, and we’ll get there. Again, first things first: this distinction will cause enough problems on its own, you see, because a review is, at least to some degree, an advertisement. Feel free to insert a moderate dose of shock and horror. But it’s true — most reviews are “ad copy”, at root. This is, admittedly, a bit of reverse-engineering, but shouldn’t be all that surprising: people will read the copy, be intrigued by the product, and then investigate avenues for purchase or file it away against future needs. Right? Yes, we want to be entertained, but if that was all it was, we’d be reading Dilbert. Remember Dilbert? Great stuff. Flipping that around, even that dry, “objectively scored” drivel that you find in Consumer Reports has direct commercial, advertising, value. Fine. I think there’s more going on, but we’ve all heard insinuated that this whole thing is a racket designed to move product, so much so that it’s practically a meme. But even if true, I submit, this is probably more in line with what a review accomplishes, that is, the point or goal of a review, that what the review itself is. Taking one as a standalone product worthy of inspection on its own merits, a review is something else entirely.

A review is, I submit, an artistic drive-by shooting.

I mean that a bit facetiously and more than a bit seriously. A review is not art, but rather aimed at art. Like a gun. Bam! I seem to remember that there were plenty of analogous approaches in college, but most of those were in my English classes and fell under the (loathsome) title of “lit crit”. And that’s what a review is, or at least it’s its kissing-cousin, art crit. Literarily, the review has a form, it’s expressive, and could very well be (and I’m sure that, in some circles, it is) considered art, itself. Please forgive me if I resist the urge to ski that particular slippery-slope. No, to me, a review is commentary on art, rather than art itself. And as such, it’s simply not true. Feel free to insert more shock and horror here, but it’s a fact — artistic value-judgments are not subject to truth-tests. In fact, truth-tests are beside the point entirely and irrelevant to the point of absurdity. There are quite a few other ways to assess whether such an argument is valid, but “truth” isn’t the one of the tools used. Let’s let that one kick around in the back of our minds. It’ll come in handy when we talk about the Scientific Method.

A review is, at its best, an informed opinion, a brief aesthetic judgement rendered by an expert, that has economic value/impact (whether positive, negative or TBD). I’ll talk about these bits a bit in turn, but generally, I think this is pretty uncontroversial as far as claims go. There may well have been a time when a “review” was a lot less judgment and a lot more recitation of fact, but these days, we really don’t see much of that. Again, whether or not the judgmental character of the review is a Good Thing is also a separate thing — again, we’ll get to that later. For now, all I ask is that you cast your mind back to all the star-ratings and similar systems for an idea of the money-shot in most reviews. Not all. But most. Obviously, Consumer Reports does this. And yes, even Stereophile does too — remember the semi-annual “Recommended Components” list? And TAS’ annual Buyer’s Guide edition? Everyone does it — and to quote Rustin Cohle:

Rust: Ascendant meat, however illusory our identities are, we craft those identities by making value judgements. Everybody judges all the time. Now, you got a problem with that, you’re living wrong.

Marty: What’s scented meat?

See? There you go. Even True Detective agrees.

So, reviews are aesthetic judgments. Statements of “what I like”. Of course, if that was all that was said, it would make for a rather … succinct … review. Even if it is the essence of what’s being conveyed.

Hmm.

So. Let’s take the standard review in Stereophile (as a random example), and for the sake of the argument, let’s pull it apart. Like taffy, because the parts are stickily delicious. Ahem. Now, there’s usually several sections to any of their published reviews, right? There’ll be (1) some kind of an intro and background, (2) a section devoted to listening notes and market comparisons, (3) followed by the big conclusion and judgment. There may be variation, but let’s keep it simple and just stipulate that this is the “standard flow”. The progression makes sense. That’s probably why most reviews tend to read, and feel, the same.

FoxNews.+fair+and+balanced_0499b7_4209591

But (and there’s always a hairy butt in every but) … if a review is an aesthetic judgment, then isn’t the Standard Review Format a bit of a tease? There’s a reason for it, for sure, especially if you think of a review as, say, journalism. Wait — what? A review isn’t journalism? Um, no. A review is most definitely not journalism in my view, though I suppose the conflation of the two is fairly common these days (especially if you’re a fan of FOX News), but it’s worth noting that most folks generally consider journalism and the editorialism (passing judgements, whether aesthetic, moral or logical) to be mutually exclusive endeavors.

Why? Well, the two approaches do considerably different things. Taking some liberties, I suppose you could say that one presents research and invites a judgment whereas the other skips right to the judgment. For example, what are we likely to get from a journalistic approach in audio’s high-end? Background! A survey, perhaps, of the history of the product, the success and failures of any progenitors, the current status of the market that the product falls in, the major personalities behind the product in question, and maybe even a discussion of the product’s design. That’s all “journalistic” and very interesting stuff, I’m sure. Good show! We can read that and be fulfilled — and then try and decide if we’re going to love it or hate on it. If that feels a little like slogging through a PBS News Hour coverage of some topic, well, that’s exactly correct. Oh, but you wanted more than that, didn’t you? Well, that’s different. Not saying you should get your news predigested, but sometimes, having an opinion about a complicated topic is heavy lifting. In fact, it almost always is. Which is why call-in radio shows are annoying. Who cares what “the average Joe” thinks about trade deficits? Or the impact of a particular appropriations bill on job creation? Where are the experts? What do they think?

But re-cast as an editorial, all this stuff becomes nothing more than a lead-in to the big finale. It has little or no intrinsic utility except — perhaps — as context, though I think this context-setting happens more in later sections. Mostly, this section is an enumeration of loosely bearing fact, and in some cases, an actual screen scrape off some corporate data sheet. But whatever its provenance, it’s fluff. Worse, it’s also boring. And from the perspective of the incredulous reader, it’s straight-up advertising. Remember, the purpose of the review is to pass some sort of judgment — there’s precious little in the “intro” that bears either a judgment or bears on a later one. So, why is it there? Of course, asking this is a little like asking if “foreplay” has any bearing on sex, but again, we’re back to advertorial teasing.

Where this “stuff” does get interesting is exactly if and when there’s a discussion of the technology found in (or around) the product itself, say, a discussion of the design, perhaps focusing on its topology or its pedigree. Of course, this is also advertising — unless there’s a judgment that can be passed here, too. And if so, that’s interesting in an editorial sense. And that’s really the only time this whole section has relevance in a review. Of course, it presupposes that the reviewer also has the expertise necessary to make those judgments, but that’s another issue. But even then, this sort of dialogue is at best tangential to the judgment of the product under review, so unless the reviewer is really just trying to pad the word count, it’s unclear why it gets included since it’s just another opportunity to be … well, boring. Me? I tend to skip this section entirely, and I suspect most of you do, too, though I do appreciate the writers who at least make the attempt to spice things up by telling a story, a joke, or creatively restructure their review in order to embed this stuff. Even if it is done out of some misguided adherence to the unwritten rules of How to Write an Audio Review.

Astley_Greatest-2002The next bit in the Standard Flow is the “Listening Notes”, where the reviewer attempts to establish or maintain some credibility and societal relevancy by walking through their music collection and showcasing exactly how truly weird their tastes are. I’m still kind of at a loss as to why this section is ever included, but it’s a ritual. Hell, when I do my reviews, I feel compelled to add this stuff. When I skip it, I feel incomplete until I go back and add something approximating it. It’s as if my vampire master is calling to me along my poisoned bloodline and I’m powerless to resist the urge to trace bass guitar notes, timpani strikes, or bugs chirping somewhere in the mix. I’m helpless. But who really cares what I listen to? If you really wanted that, wouldn’t you look up a music review? Or is this some kind of freebie? A twofer! Seriously, though, audiophiles have notoriously bad taste in music (even if they have excellent taste in sound quality), so I’m unclear as to why anyone would want a readout of what oddball LP I’m glomming onto on any given day.

So, questionable public utility aside, the only real reason I can think of that this section might serve is to pad up the punchline. If an aesthetic judgment is a glorified way of characterizing a “what I like” statement, then the Listening Section is that context we talked about earlier — this is the “why I like it” section.

wine1The interesting bit here, at least with respect to Skoff’s article, is the intersection between the expert and the review, specifically in the structure of the review. If the expert were actually trusted, a succinct value judgment (with not padding or filler) could actually suffice: just hang a rating on the product and walk away. I’ll talk more about wine and wine reviews in a later post, but if wine guru Robert Parker were to hang a score greater than 95 on any wine in my price range, I’d be buying a case. Maybe six. I don’t need to read anything more — except where I can buy it. I know Parker’s rating system. I know what it takes to hit that number. And I know what I’m getting out of a bottle that Parker thinks that much of. I’m done.

Curiously, I don’t think there’s ever been an audio reviewer that could pull that off. I wonder why that is?

So, that’s a review. An expression of preference. An eloquently argued paean. A roadside tragedy on the highway to audio nitpickery. An opportunity for the artistic to play artist. A waste of time. An advertisement. All of the above? Or something else?

Up Next

Well, that was … weird. Let’s do more!

In Part 2, we’re going to take a longer look at “the expert”. I’ve been meaning to take some time and look at some problems with the common (mis-) use of “the double-blind”, too, so let’s do that there.

In Part 3, we’ll explore some of the more saucy bits when we shift our philosophical lens to “Ethics”. Fear, uncertainty and doubt — arise, my dark children! Arise!

Part 4 will wrap things up with a exploration of the notion of art vs critic, and finally get around to “value”, “value judgments” and what “the point” really ought to be.

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About Scot Hull (979 Articles)

Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and The Occasional Magazine.

2 Comments on On Experts, Reviews, and Drive By Shootings: Part 1

  1. Regards to any audio reviewer being able to have the influence of a wine critic it is rather simple. Audio reviewers are opining on the bottle it comes in, not the product itself. There have certainly been music critics who have had a similar influence to Mr Parker.
    That’s not to say there isn’t a place for audio reviewers. However, to continue the wine metaphor, it seems we have now gone from reviewing the bottle, cork and glass that comes into contact with the product to the coaster it sits on, the box in came and the fuel the truck used that carried said box. Imagine if for one second Mr Parker stated the exact same wine was ‘significantly’ better because he sat the glass on a different surface or he elevated his wine fridge off of the floor by two inches. I’m pretty sure his credibility and influence would rapidly dissipate.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // March 22, 2014 at 9:13 PM //

      “There have certainly been music critics who have had a similar influence to Mr Parker.”

      I suppose you could make an argument here, but the fact that it’s an argument means that it’s not the same. Parker’s influence isn’t debatable. He not only guided an entire generation of wine consumers, he actually altered the way wine was reviewed as a whole. And that’s still not it. Parker actually changed the way wine was made. No one in audio’s high-end has had this kind of impact. Ever. And certainly not a “mere critic”.

      As for the differences between wine and audio, I’ll take it as read that there are lots. But most critics I know tend to get hung up on the sound of their system before and after the product came and went. Sure, there’s talk about “the bottle” — and the vintner, the vineyard, and the grape. My point is that precious little of that really bears on the rating. As for other reviewers, who can say?

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