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Mastering something, and the more complex the better, is a rewarding accomplishment. Along with expertise comes acknowledgement of that knowledge and insight, and which duly, confers status to the person who has worked hard. It comes as surprise to find that these qualities of expertise are not so clear-cut.

After a long study of wine judges, a vintner, and statistician, discovered some very odd results from the wine judges. From one year to the next, they might give the same wine an almost random grade. One year it might be best in class, but at another event, it might not even reach the final half dozen. The patterns, or lack of them, runs against the integrity of expertise. A product ought to have the same quality wherever and whenever. If the judges who have spent time cultivating expertise can’t get it right, the hoi polloi will have no chance.

This hypothesis was tested last Christmas in a street taste test of people’s preferences for a cheap versus expensive Christmas pudding and mince pies. In a reversal for price tag snobs, the cheaper product won every time. It had more overt taste qualities – probably more salt and sugar. The same type of result occurs with wine tests where the cheaper bottle appeals to more people than the very subtle higher quality vintages. It vaguely proves that our tastes are not much more expert and sophisticated than the typical three year olds.

This evidence makes it rather difficult to assume that expertise is inviolate. Human senses and a whole of lot of other factors too, make it almost impossible for humans to make perfect absolute judgments on things, whether wine or technology, or books and writing. This doesn’t mean that expertise is valueless; taking the opinions of someone who understands wine or medieval literature is more worthwhile than someone who doesn’t. It may mean, that like objectivity, it’s rather elusive, not absolute, judgment is created by the effect of the agents themselves, and so, not too much store should be given to it.

I suppose the influence of the expert lies behind a new book on Shakespeare as a psychotherapist. Here the argument is that audiences had a sort of psychotherapeutic experience and the complexity of the characters indicates that the author was a proto-psychotherapist.

It’s an engaging view for contemporary readers now familiar with psychology from Freud to Frasier. It does, however, pull and stretch several aspects of the Elizabethan world to make the argument. Notions about psychology, of assumptions about how the mind worked were not familiar in the 1590s, and even when Freud made his case three hundred years later, there was severe criticism of such ideas. The place of God and religion in Elizabethan life predominated over any personal psychology.

Audience responses are very hard to interpret with hindsight. Ancient Greek theater had a very different aim to how it initially developed and in cities other than Athens. The text is the same but the audience used an understood the material in a different way from its original intention.

Even so the book is one more way to reflect on the work though it’s not clear that it determines what actually happened and why. Not absolutely anyway, which is what we have to live with.

Guy Cranswick
1st May 2014

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