Part 2.1: Epistemology and some Problems with Being an Expert
Recently, Roger Skoff offered up a caricature of an argument around the so-called “expert” and skewered some of the challenges that appertain thereto. Whew. You had no idea, did you? Well, yes, ‘appertain‘ is in fact a word.
In case you missed that article and then promptly failed to avail (another real word!) yourself of the link to click back, Skoff argues that high-end audio experts, generally speaking, aren’t — and that’s okay because we’re all still going to live.
When your breathing returns to normal, let me assure you that it’s all true, we are going to live. I mean, high-end audio is a hobby after all. No puppies were harmed during the enjoyment of this enterprise. So. Take a breath. And another. And repeat as necessary.
In Part 1 of our philosophical detour, courtesy of Skoff’s jumping off point, we took an odd look at reviews. In this section, we’re going to talk some more about the Knowers, and some challenges with being one.
Becoming an expert
I think at this point, it’s worth it to actually look at our
experts. I mean, just to continue on with “the who and the what” line of considerations. Right? Right. It might be best to start this part off with a confession. Maybe two. But for those of you that know me, you know that I’m kind of a tourist in these mountains. A hiker. A consumer with a taste for high-quality gear and an unfortunate habit of over-sharing. Translated in this context: I am not an expert.
I’m not atypical in this, I don’t think. Many of the current crop of audio critics are self-appointed; they have absolutely no qualifications whatsoever. Sure, I do know that a great many reviewers do have some that are real and salient. For example, I know several reviewers that are actually (past or present) professional musicians. That should qualify as relevant experience, I’d think. Some others I know of are product designers, or ex-sales or marketing types, or in some other meaningful way connected to “The Industry”. I’m not sure how many are professional writers, per se, though I do know of one who’s a professor of poetry, which is pretty much all kinds of awesome. I know of at least one conductor. At least one neuroscientist. All possibly relevant, no?
But the field tends to fray a bit, and does so rather rapidly. I know at least one reviewer who’s a practicing physician. Another who’s a taxi driver. There’s a plumber. And even a pilot. Some are in marketing, quite a few are in IT, some have piled it higher and deeper with their education and some have segued through the school of hard knocks. It’s a weird crowd.
But if you’re looking for a common thread, well, I’m sorry. There isn’t one. The only thing that makes a reviewer a reviewer is the fact that they review. And if that’s a bit circular, well, welcome to the party. The problem, at least as many of you have chosen to express it, is that this means that there’s really no quality control. No test. No bar to entry and therefore, no consistency. No baseline. No way for a new reader to discern in advance what they’re likely to get before digging into a review, and there’s no way to know, of the reviewers on offer, whose work will line up with or appeal to the “average reader” or even if you, Gentle Reader, would qualify as such. Similarly, there’s no way to know who out there is a crank, who’s off their meds, or who’s just having a miserable excuse for a year. Which is precisely why many of those audio forums are so much fun.
I’d like to offer that the average, paid, reviewer is (or should aspire to be) an expert. But since exhaustive experience is out of the question, we’re left with something less. Gladwell’s somewhat arbitrary “10,000 hours of practice” target to achieve “mastery” of some cognitively challenging endeavor is onerous (to say the least), and while the average wannabe might find that investment necessary, it might not be sufficient. Debate aside, I think it’s a handy number in that it represents a significant investment. Mapped out to the calendar, those 10,000 hours becomes something like 10 years of “work” listening, writing, editing, critiquing, fiddling, tuning, tweaking, &c, on top of all the other crap that goes into being an active, engaged, “working” audiophile (and general human being). Ten years! So, if you’re reading a reviewer that doesn’t have ten years of experience “being a reviewer” (double that if they have any kind of serious and unrelated day job), I think you could make the case that they’re not an expert, and therefore, you’re justified in completely discounting their contributions, right? As if you really needed a reason. And so goes the vast majority of reviewers — consign them and their misbegotten noise to the flame!
Pardon me as this is yet another time to roll my eyes. Yes, fine. I take your point — why take Granny’s advice about that runny nose when you can go see licensed physician? In fact, why go to a lousy General Practice doc when you can go to a cardiologist, an ENT specialist, and a allergist whenever you get the sniffles? It’s tempting and I bet many of you do just that, given half the chance. It’s all more than a little overkill, but hey, why the hell not — healthcare is no joke. It’s a Human Right! Or something.
The fact of the matter is that the reviewer you’re reading is probably not an expert under any arbitrarily strict usage of the term. The fact that they may have more experience than you do also doesn’t make them an expert — it only means that they have more experience than you. And experience does tend to teach you some things. Your choice in who you listen to, that is, who you trust as an expert, is entirely up to you, even if it means that you’re now out three different co-pays and you still end up taking two Advil, eating up a nice bowl of Granny’s chicken soup and just waiting out your cold. Oh, and just for the record, I have to submit that high-end audio is most definitely not as complicated as your health. Ahem.
Fine, so there are a lot of folks out there writing, blogging, trolling and a video-ing their way through audio’s high-end, sharing their “wisdom” with any and all comers. For the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that the vast majority of these folks are not expert. We’ll also stipulate that they’re not likely to ever become expert, either. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t experts at all, or that they and those with expert aspirations have nothing to offer. I like to think of the audio dealer as falling somewhere along this spectrum toward expert. They have expertise, if you will, even if they are not themselves expert. Or expert yet. Or maybe they are. But even if they aren’t, chances are, they still tend to know a lot more than we do. Why? Because this is what they do. In many cases, this is all they do — and using Gladwell’s barometer, you can hit that 10k hour mark in 3 years if you’re on it full-time and dedicated, so it’s quite possible that they are experts. But you know this.
So, why do we ignore them, then?
Being an expert (Part 1) and Selling Out
Perhaps it has to do with sales. You know. The fact that all salespeople are lying sons o’ bitches that would sell time on their spouses with every purchase of a new system if they thought they’d have a better chance of closing a deal. Sales lizards. Those deceiving curs that pile in all those crazy, unnecessary, and lunatic “tweaks” that do nothing except bleed us poor, working stiffs drier than dry. Snake oil. Snake oil, I say!
Okay, maybe that’s some of it. There does seem to be a disdain and wild suspicion of anyone that stands to gain financially from any transaction. Anyone coming off as a little too enthusiastic, either in a forum or in a magazine review, can get tarred with this brush, too. I’ve already suggested that bit about reviews as ad-copy, so I won’t rehash that here, but it’s “Common Knowledge” that shills are everywhere. Anyone can be bought. Just look at all those bags of cash being handed around!
While I’m still waiting for my bag of cash to be handed around, I can honestly say that this is mostly paranoid fantasy. Most dealers need you to be happy at the end of a transaction for a particularly blunt reason: their business model requires that you come back. If you feel like they cheated you, guess what? You’re not likely to do that. Duh. So, fine, feel free to take what these experts have to say with a grain of salt — no one ever said you need to be a brain-dead zombie in order to take and evaluate the advice of someone other than Granny (because her soup really does cure what ails you, you ingrate whippersnapper). It’s true — most dealers really do bend over backwards to accommodate all the crazy ass things we consumers ask of them — because if they don’t, you’re gone. If you’re gone, so are they. Believe me when I say that they know this rather keenly, so they try to build their business on things they think that matter to you. Things like loyalty and trustworthiness — and not just massive discounting. Ha ha! Deluded bastards! Sorry. That just slipped out.
Anyway, yes, there are “bad apples” in every barrel — that’s a given. If you have a “bad dealer” story, congrats, you’re an audiophile. But just so you know, you should hear the “bad customer” stories. Whoa. We are douche bags. But I digress.
So, fine, it’s quite possible that experts are viewed with suspicion because they are financially invested in your belief of their value. Or something. So, magazine editors, writers, equipment sellers, manufacturers — anyone actually drawing some financial benefit from any part of The System is irretrievably suspect. Which leaves … what? Or rather, whom? Anonymously submitted posts from RandomAudioDude324 on WeLoveAudioTrolls-dot-com? Clearly, that guy with 10,000 posts under a pseudonym has nothing to hide, right? Or does trust only accrue when you have someone willing to put their own money where their mouth is — some brave publisher that doesn’t take advertising dollars? Or that acquires review product only by buying it at full sticker price? Or is “financially independent”, because we all know that the rich are incorruptible?
I shouldn’t have to say that there are pretty standard “checks and balances” to editorial integrity, and for what it’s worth, it seems a fairly trivial thing to manage — I’ll submit that there are a few (thousand) ways to make this work in an uncontroversially ethical manner. Sure, there’s also lots of ways to abuse this relationship, but based on my (admittedly limited) experience, such abuse doesn’t seem to happen. Perhaps the risk of exposure is simply too great? Of course, the separation of church and state is a lot harder when the players need to wear multiple hats. This puts pressure on the “little guy” publishers (like Part-Time Audiophile, for example), but being complicated little creatures, “ways can be found” to ensure editorial integrity. For the record, this usually means a compromise or two — but not in the way you probably think. I’ve talked about this at length already, so I won’t rehash it here — but for the curious, the pressure is more “threatened litigation” than “paying for positive reviews”, which is one reason you don’t find a plethora of negative reviews from people who can be tracked down (the other reason is that it’s sloppy writing, but that’s another topic entirely).
By the way, did you know that SCOTUS has ruled that “bloggers” are not subject to First Amendment “Free Press” protections? Interesting, eh? Yeah. Even if you could stand your ground, win your case in favor of your cutting wit and devastating vitriol, you’ll still have to pay to get there. Gotta love the corporate mentality that thinks it’s easier to sue naysayers than to fix the problem, but then, welcome to America.
Being an expert (Part 2) for too long
Here’s another wrinkle about your experts and maybe why we tend to hate on them: they’re old.
It’s true. What with the whole economics of audio’s high-end (i.e., it’s expensive as all hell) and the 10,000 hour Gladwell requirement, experts don’t typically sprout on trees with the coming of Spring. Creating one requires investment. Unfortunately, Life has a rather annoying and tedious tendency to inject itself into things like “plans”, and routinely does so in ways that make prolonged focus and the development of expertise, well, rather complicated. In short — there are very few experts and that’s likely the way it’s going to stay. But let’s map that out for a second. Most audiophiles-turned-expert (where the term ‘audiophile’ is a placeholder for those with inclination and exposure) aren’t young, unless they’re rich.
Sure, there are kids out there playing with high-end gear or longing for it, but for most of us, that interest doesn’t collide with the actuality until the bank account hits some kind of critical mass. Again, speaking in wild generalities, that doesn’t tend to happen till we hit 40 (plus or minus a few years). That is, “mid-career”, for whatever it is that fills in the term ‘career’. Given that most experts don’t necessarily throw over a career-in-process that got them to the point where they have free cash to throw on something other than baby clothes, debt repayment and the annual vacation, this expert thing gets piled on top of the “whatever else” constitutes Having A Life.
Check out TAS and Stereophile and count the number of full-time reviewers they have on staff. Don’t worry, it’s a quick count — you’ll only need one hand. For both. Yeah. Not many. Which means most of those other folks are stringers. Contractors. Part-Timers. And they either have a day job, or are retired. Day jobbers tend not to have lots of free time. Retirees, however, might.
Which now brings us squarely in front of the elephant in the room: Old Age. It’s a maxim that all things fall apart. Including you, sadly. Your eyesight. Your hair. Your metabolism and physique. Your hearing.
I read somewhere that everyone has hearing loss. Everyone. Rule of thumb? Take your age. Tack a percentage symbol to that number. That’s how much you’ve lost. 50 years old? You’re down 50%. Sure, there’s variation. But apparently, it’s less than you’d think (feel free to Google the daylights out of this, it’s your time). But even accounting for that variation, it’s a fact that for every one of those retiree-age reviewers out there, that number — whatever it is — is most definitely not zero. Which brings us to a rather uncomfortable question — how much are your experts actually able to hear? If they love a product, is it because they missed an obvious high-frequency flaw? If they are neutral on a product, is it because they really missed out on its strengths or weaknesses? If they hate on a product, is it because they fucked up the setup (which is another issue), or that their taste deviates from yours (analytical vs tonal — we’ll get there eventually), or because there’s something about them, physically, that exacerbates or exaggerates some aspect of the auditory experience?
For example, I know several people with severe allergies to bright sounding systems and components. Likewise, I know several other people that vastly prefer (what I’d consider) bright sounding gear. Does the former group suffer from tinnitus? Does the latter have a thing for motorcycles? How many times were either sitting front row at a Megadeth show? Putting everything aside, including how much they’ve learned, or experienced, or how ethical they are, or anything — putting all that off, how do you know that the review you’re reading is coming from someone physically able to make the judgments they’re making?
In short, you don’t. It’s a fact that most of the incredibly gifted, wildly revered, amazingly experienced reviewers we’ve been reading for years, could be, in some meaningful way, critically impaired. And every year, this problem gets worse, not better.
I’m not saying that audio reviewers ought to hang it up after 50. That’s silly. The fact is, there is variation with hearing loss, and it is obviously true that not every 60-year-old has catastrophic loss. It is true, however, that training & experience can allow you to see directly to the heart of a great many things, like flaws, strengths, and the like. Yes, some things will always get missed, or if not missed, then downplayed (or the reverse). But the missing stuff is by no means everything there is to report on. There is a lot of value to age and wisdom and the perspective that comes with them — and without them, we’d have pretty much ended up chasing our tails as a species. I’m also not saying that anyone venturing an opinion on things audio need to sign up for quarterly hearing tests, though that’d be fascinating. There’s a lot of variation out there, and variation is a good thing, on the whole. But if you’re looking for reasons to doubt your experts, this is a pretty fecund area to farm.
Okay, I’m going to leave a fork in this one, and queue up the next section with a ham-handed segue to “opinion”.
That is, let’s talk about why yours sucks — next time.