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When Words Just Aren't Enough...

Experts, Schmexperts

While we're on the subject of expertise, a study finds that blindfolded violinists preferred new violins to the supposedly ineffable old Italian fiddles:

Many researchers have sought explanations for the purported tonal superiority of Old Italian violins by investigating varnish and wood properties, plate tuning systems, and the spectral balance of the radiated sound. Nevertheless, the fundamental premise of tonal superiority has been investigated scientifically only once very recently, and results showed a general preference for new violins and that players were unable to reliably distinguish new violins from old.... In this study, 10 renowned soloists each blind-tested six Old Italian violins (including five by Stradivari) and six new during two 75-min sessions—the first in a rehearsal room, the second in a 300-seat concert hall. When asked to choose a violin to replace their own for a hypothetical concert tour, 6 of the 10 soloists chose a new instrument. A single new violin was easily the most-preferred of the 12. On average, soloists rated their favorite new violins more highly than their favorite old for playability, articulation, and projection, and at least equal to old in terms of timbre. Soloists failed to distinguish new from old at better than chance levels. These results confirm and extend those of the earlier study and present a striking challenge to near-canonical beliefs about Old Italian violins.

Add this to the mountain of evidence that professional wine tasters can be influenced by all sorts of extraneous factors: 

Colour affects our perceptions too. In 2001 Frédérick Brochet of the University of Bordeaux asked 54 wine experts to test two glasses of wine– one red, one white. Using the typical language of tasters, the panel described the red as "jammy' and commented on its crushed red fruit.

The critics failed to spot that both wines were from the same bottle. The only difference was that one had been coloured red with a flavourless dye.

As Kevin Drum puts it succinctly, if you're an expert but can't do your thing blindfolded, STFU.

[The video is a legendary 1988 episode of the German TV show 'Wetten, dass...' (Bet that I can...) in which Titanic (g) magazine editor Bernd Fritz claimed to be able to detect the color of markers (g) by tasting them.]

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