Monday, November 28, 2011

Rant: Beware The Self-Proclaimed Expert

I am very tired of self-proclaimed wine experts, gurus, ninjas and whatever whose actual knowledge is lacking. This is obviously not a problem restricted to the wine world and many fields have this same problem, a deluge of self-proclaimed experts who can't back up their claims. Just look at how many so-called social media gurus are around. But I am going to restrict myself here to the realm of wine and others alcoholic beverages.

There are easily over 1000 wine blogs in the U.S. and it is simple for anyone to start a blog as no prior wine knowledge is needed. I have no issue with that, and don't think there should be any minimum prerequisite knowledge level. I have no problem with people learning as they go, developing their wine knowledge over time. With the vast amount of wine knowledge available in the world, every blogger should be on a perpetual learning curve and I personally revel in the accumulation of new wine knowledge. If we stop learning, we stagnate and get left behind as new knowledge comes to light.

Amidst all these wine blogs are some bloggers who label themselves as experts or boast highly of their knowledge level in their posts. (So much for humility being a virtue). Are their claims valid? How do we determine whether it is valid or not? What makes a person an expert? What makes a person an expert in the wine field?

There is no black and white litmus test to determine whether someone is an expert or not, but there are numerous factors to consider in such an assessment. For example, consider some of the following questions, and know that there are many more questions to ask as well. How long has someone been involved in a field? How much official schooling or training have they had in the subject material? How much have they informally read or studied on the subject? What types of jobs have they held in the field? Which areas have they visited for educational purposes? How authoritative are they seen by their peers or acknowledged experts?

In answering those questions, one should also delve deeply into the responses as the surface answer may not tell the entire story. For example, does a person actually have five years of experience, or merely one year that they have repeated five times?  Just because a person lived in a country for several years does not mean they automatically know plenty about that country's wines. What did that person do, if anything, in that country to learn about the wines?  If a person has a wine certification, what did the process of obtaining it entail? Was it home study or a formal classroom? Who was the instructor?

It is as easy to start a wine blog as it is to declare yourself an expert. Frankly, if you feel the need to keep telling people how knowledgeable you are, then you probably are lacking in many respects. Those secure in their knowledge don't brag about it, and also are quick to note when they don't know something. It is usually safer to rely on the opinions of well respected wine experts as to who else is an expert or not. They are best able to judge their peers, to determine whether such individuals truly deserve to be labeled as experts or not.

It can be easy for some self proclaimed wine experts, through the use of smoke and mirrors, to convince some readers of their alleged expertise, especially if their audience lacks knowledge in the intended area of expertise. These so-called experts may know the right lingo or technical terms to spout off, giving the impression they know much more than they do. But, there will always be people who can see through the charade, who note that the emperor has no clothes.

The harm is that these alleged experts may pass off their errors to others, who will embrace them as truth. Thus, the errors take on a life of their own, and it gets that much harder to correct the misconception. And these alleged experts far too often resist correction, even when they are wrong. They don't want to face the realization that they might known as much as they claim.

Don't proclaim yourself an expert. Let your words and actions speak for themselves.


Jason said...

I think one problem is that expertise, like so many other things, is relative. Someone who's been to a couple of tastings and read half a wine book would be the default "expert" in a room full of people who know nothing at all about wine, and even if he didn't want the responsibility, you can bet that people will turn to him with their questions once they hear he's so much as interested in wine. After however many weeks/months of being called a "wine expert" by friends and family, even the most cautious speakers will get tired of correcting everyone.

But I agree that it's in extremely poor taste to label oneself an expert, no matter how much one may know about wine (or any subject). I call myself a vinic adventurer, and I have a feeling that's what I'll continue to call myself throughout my wine career. There will always be more to learn, right?

Evan Dawson said...

The last line is bang on, Richard. But this is where the free market does wonders. If a blog writer anoints him or herself as an expert, it will be easy for the reading public to discern the accuracy of that assessment. Either their readership will be satisfied, and will return, or they won't, and won't.

Ben Bell said...

I feel the same way about product labeling such as "ultra-premium" or "luxury". It generally raises a red flag to me about the quality.

Lenn Thompson said...

You and I have discussed topics like this before, so you know that I agree 100%. BUT, I'm not sure that I see it as large of a problem as you clearly do.

Why? The cream always rises. Of those 1,000ish wine blogs, how many have been around for five years? How many have readership beyond family and friends?

I guess what my point is is that people will figure out very quickly if you're an expert or not (if you're anointing yourself as one).

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Jason:
A valid point about matters being relative. Many people are quick to label another an expert if that person's knowledge level is greater than their own. I am sure many of us have been called such by friends and family with little wine knowledge. And yes, there is always more to learn, which is part of the enjoyment.

Hi Ben:
I would agree with you. Such "meaningless" terms certainly raise a red flag to me as well.

Hi Evan and Lenn:
I am not sure that it is always so easy for the reading public to discern a false expert, especially in more niche areas. The average reader may not have the requisite knowledge level to know that the alleged expert really does not know what they are talking about. They might fall for the "expert's" lingo and technical terms.

Some false experts will be more quickly discovered, but I think sometimes a few may last quite a time. Granted, it is not a huge problem, but it is out there.

Thanks all!

Evil Bottle said...

Good post. Like Jason said, and you agreed with, there will always be someone who knows more about any given subject. It's all relative. What makes blogs a double edged sword is that there are so many great and knowledgeable people who are writing blogs, such as yourself, and there are plenty of people who are writing from their A$$es.

I don't read many blogs. There are just too many, and I not trying to be the next big blog. I write it to hopefully connect with like-minded people. Not educate them, but what I will say is this, I work in the industry, and I taste more wines in a year than most people do in a lifetime. That is because I have access. If I write something it is what I believe it to be the truth based on my taste/palate. I have a small focus, and I think I know it very well. Not an expert, but well versed. Probably a lot like yourself. Sorry for the rambling on,