Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Expert's Fallacy

With most art, including music, poetry and all visual art, I sometimes listen/read/watch and think, "OK, this just isn't my thing." With prose, though, I pretty always feel like I can definitively say whether it's good or not. What is that? I told John about this and he said he feels the same about both poetry and prose. I wonder if this is some kind of Expert's Fallacy, whereby when you've experienced enough of some genre, you come to believe you can act as a definitive arbiter of taste. (It's possible John has read more poetry than me; he's probably read more prose too, but it doesn't matter because we've both crossed the necessary threshold.) Come to think of it, I feel the same way about film: entirely confident in my ability to deem it good or bad. Of course almost everyone is an "expert" in film. It's practically our national pastime.

I once dated a guy for a while that I knew I would eventually stop seeing; he was very smart and very attractive but we just weren't compatible in any deep kind of way, which I think came down to his essential lack of weirdness. But almost every time we went out, we had just good enough a time that I put off ending it. (I say "almost" because there was eventually a final date when he managed to actively annoy me, pushing me over into sayonara mode.) I'm reading a book like that right now. It's not very good, but it's just entertaining enough that I haven't been moved to abandon and find a replacement read yet.

24 comments:

  1. I feel that way too about prose and movies and music. We all grow up with those things, so we're comfortable judging them. Of course I see now that a lot of my tastes when I was younger were dumb, but the confidence has always been there.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I feel that way about pop music but not all music. Not, you know, experimental music and jazz.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Don't hold out on us. What's the book?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

    ReplyDelete
  5. That's been semi on my to-read list for a while.

    ReplyDelete
  6. It's just sort of bloated. It reminds me of White Teeth, which I finished and even liked at the time, but in retrospect I sort of hate it.

    ReplyDelete
  7. It's not necessarily a fallacy. Once you cross that threshold you just know what you're talking about and can explain exactly why something is good or not. You aren't the ultimate arbiter, but you needn't defer to anyone else's opinion any more.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Perhaps, but don't a lot of people who are decidedly unexpert believe that they can tell what is good or isn't in music, film, etc? I worry that it's still all relative.

    ReplyDelete
  9. then it's the Unexpert's Fallacy!

    I go both ways. I like to think I can tell good jazz from bad better than other people because I played and studied it (though nowhere near the expert level), but on the other hand I believe in "if it sounds good, it is good." But then again I don't think Duke would be opposed to the idea that learning about something can enhance your appreciation of it....

    It's like the discussion about poetry last week.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Well I do think there are movies that are simply "not my thing" -- e.g. Star Wars, the (first) Matrix, insert random item from genre you're not interested in. The rule I tend to use is that if a lot of people like something I don't like at all, and I can't immediately identify the weakness in their character that makes them like it, then it is most likely a limitation of my taste. (There are also movies, like "Garden State" and "Lost in Translation," that I get _and_ dislike.)

    ReplyDelete
  11. Yes, there is a swath of genres I'm not really interested in as a rule, but whether it's a book or a movie, I have some sense of how technically good it is -- with music, I often feel completely unqualified to comment.

    ReplyDelete
  12. i think music is the one you need to know the least about to have an opinion. i can easily tell whether i like something pretty much immediately on first listening. it's like the taste of food--it's not something you think about, it's an automatic reaction.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I'm not talking about whether or not I personally like it. I'm talking about whether or not it's "good." Like there's a difference between saying "OK I guess I see why other people like this but it's not for me" and saying "The people who like this are wrong, it is bad."

    Sometimes I'm actually not sure how I even feel about something because I have no way to contextualize it, no basis for comparison.

    ReplyDelete
  14. i don't differentiate between "i like it" and "it's good" ;)

    ReplyDelete
  15. Probably most people don't, but they have less sophisticated aesthetics than I.................

    ReplyDelete
  16. i too feel that most people have less sophisticated aesthetics than i...but yeah, that just leads backs to the never-ending question, is it all relative?

    ReplyDelete
  17. It's mostly relative.

    I think the problem with expertise is that you inevitably enter into a kind of forced consensus with other experts. I believe some of what feels like "knowledge" is actually "brainwashing" (fear of dissent).

    ReplyDelete
  18. But experts don't all agree. At a high level you recognize the expertise of other experts but don't necessarily agree with them. But you can tell exactly why and how they go wrong. Of course it's all relative in some sense, but you recognize those with enough expertise to have the right to an informed opinion. Of course, that's not to dismiss non-expert opinion either. Or the good intuition of the non-expert.

    The other side of this is the person who should be an expert but is not. Someone exposed to enough to be able to have an informed opinion, but who simply chooses wrong every time. It's complicated, isn't it?

    ReplyDelete
  19. They don't all agree, but I think they agree more than is necessary. Or they agree wrong. I'm thinking of cases where everyone is over the moon about something, and 15 years later it's like a collective "What were we thinking?"

    ReplyDelete
  20. I guess I don't think I can determine if something's technically good or bad if I don't understand why it appeals to people. Because obviously the technique is _actually_ serving a purpose I don't fully understand, so I can't tell how competently it's serving it. Perhaps an example is those long boring panoramic scenes in certain kinds of movie: I think they're all unbearably tedious and annoying, but can't tell if they're good or bad (in the sense of being effective or ineffective at appealing to the target audience that likes that kind of thing). Similarly with the genres that aren't my cup of tea: I wouldn't trust myself to tell the good -- as in, things that would appeal to fans -- from the bad -- things that wouldn't. One could, of course, express one's views about the prose rhythms in Philip K. Dick novels, but this sort of criticism would be completely beside the point.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I see what you mean, Elisa. I see it in "quality" tv programs that just about everyone has to like, because they have quality. It's almost tautological. Maybe years later it will be obvious to everyone that The Sopranos was crappy.

    On the other hand you don't have to be an expert to see what the quality shows are supposed to be. The bar is set pretty low there.

    ReplyDelete
  22. This reminds me of something Auden wrote about the difference between children and adults.(In The Dyer's Hand, which I've lost, so I'm relying on memory.) A child has only two responses to a work of art: I like it or I don't like it. An adult has five: 1)This is good, and I like it, 2)This is probably good, but I don't like it, 3)This is probably bad, but I like it anyway, 4) This is bad, and I don't like it, 5) This is good, but I don't like it. If I stick with it, however--perhaps even pretend to like it--I may come to like it eventually.

    I think I shouldn't feel confident about my ability to evaluate a work of art until I've studied the best works of that medium. You don't know how tall a tall building really is until you've seen the Burj Khalifa.

    ReplyDelete
  23. David, I like that system and I've had all those kinds of responses ... and it gets even more complicated, like "This is bad by general standards of 'art,' but good by standards of TV."

    ReplyDelete
  24. Ah! You're right. Or "This is bad by objective musical standards, but it's good rock 'n roll." Yeah, it gets complicated.

    ReplyDelete