Insiders in a field know that frequently there is more room for professional judgment in certain pronouncements than the general public realizes. Often that is simply reality. The world is full of uncertainty, random events, and unexpected outcomes. The edge of even the sharpest razor blade looks pitted and dull under a microscope. This is life. The problem comes when experts attempt to pass off opinion as fact or theory as fundamental truth. Humans being humans there is a common desire to “trump the doubters” by overstating the case or elevate one’s own status or the status of one’s chosen field by attempting to speak “ex cathedra.” (1)
A recent example came to light in the field of wines, an area already rife with snobbery and hype, where value (thus price and profit) is anchored strongly by perception and conferred prestige.
How can the same wine win top medals in one competition and not even place in another? “What if the successive judgments of the same wine, by the same wine expert, vary so widely that the ratings and medals on which wines base their reputations are merely a powerful illusion?” So concluded two studies published in the Journal of Wine Economics.
The experts as equal to coin flippers conclusion is not without precedent; a 1996 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology reported similar randomness. (The Wall Street Journal, November 14, 2009, “A Hint of Hype, A Taste of Illusion.”)
As always, there is great value in taking most things in life with a grain of salt. (2)
(1) In Catholic theology, the Latin phrase ex cathedra, literally meaning “from the chair,” refers to a teaching by the pope that is considered to be made with the intention of invoking infallibility.
(2) With a grain of salt is a literal translation of a Latin phrase, (cum) grano salis.
In common parlance, if something is to be taken with a grain of salt, it means that a copious measure of skepticism should be applied regarding a claim; that it should not be blindly accepted and believed without any doubt or reservation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary “to take ‘it’ with a grain of salt” means “to accept a thing less than fully.” It dates this usage back to 1647. According to the The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, the phrase also means to “view a statement with a skeptical attitude.”
The phrase comes from Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, regarding the discovery of a recipe for an antidote to a poison. In the antidote, one of the ingredients was a grain of salt. Threats involving the poison were thus to be taken “with a grain of salt” and therefore less seriously. The Dutch language has a similar phrase, een korreltje zout.