In his delightfully authentic and autobiographical Setting the Table, restauranteur and entrepreneur Danny Meyer both laments and celebrates the role critics have played in determining the success of his various restaurants.
In one such story he recounts a time in 1994 when New York magazine profiled his newest restaurant upon its opening, complete with a cover page emblazoned with 4 stars under the prompt “Gramercy Tavern: The Next Great Restaurant?”
While publicity like this would normally be considered better than anything money could buy, the publication failed to inform their lead food critic, Gael Greene, that they would be running this piece. Mr. Meyer was put in the awful position of having to explain that her work would be overshadowed by that of the magazine for which she wrote. She was outraged and took it out on the newly opened tavern.
Predictably, Gael did launch an assault on the restaurant in her review; she was responding as much to her own magazine’s hype as she was to her sense of the restaurant itself. That her editors had shown disrespect for her by not telling her about the cover story certainly added to her distaste for Gramercy Tavern.Danny Meyer, Setting the Table
This professional critic, accomplished and well respected within her industry, was not above writing a negative, harmful, and inaccurate review over an internal beef with her colleagues.
Another critic, this one from an important New York newspaper, panned Meyer’s newly opened Blue Smoke pit barbecue restaurant. When Meyer followed up with the guest who had dined with the reviewer that evening he was told that the critic took it as an insult that his meal was not comped as he expected it would be.
Learning from this experience, Meyer “hosted” the next two critics visiting his restaurant for the purpose of reviewing it, treating them to a complementary dining experience that was about far more than the cost of the meals. Not surprisingly, both critics wrote glowingly positive reviews of the same restaurant still recovering from the black eye they’d received in the last review.
In the realms of restaurants and their critics there is no market anywhere in the U.S. (or the world?) that surpasses New York. It’s The Show and everywhere else is the minor leagues. These critics are the cream of the crop and their entire careers depend on the perception of their expertise and opinions as being impeccable.
So why would critics in the rarified air of the New York dining scene risk damaging their own reputations over personal squabbles and slights?
Because they’re humans. Just like me. Just like you.
This obvious and inescapable fact isn’t limited to the bustle of dining rooms throughout the Big Apple. It applies to the board rooms of large financial companies, the hallowed halls of prestigious academic institutions, and even the research laboratories of the scientists and experts we’re encouraged to believe unquestioningly because, well, they’re scientists and experts.
One thing that has amazed me over the past few months is just how prone we are to the argumentum ad verecundiam (appeal to authority) logical fallacy. Simply put, the fallacy is that Expert X says Y is true and therefore it must be true.
“The experts say masks are unnecessary and don’t help.” Got it, no mask. “The experts now say masks are critically important and the only way we can defeat the pandemic.” Got it, lemme go grab my mask.
I’ve also seen a river of scornful insults being directed toward anyone who would dare question or, heaven forbid, go against their stated recommendations. And suggesting that they, as humans, may have additional or conflicting interests that go beyond revealing pure, objective, and esoteric truths to the common masses is blasphemy or high treason (depending on which god you’re believed to have offended).
The world is a big place. It’s very complex, interconnected, and opaque. It’s very difficult to build narratives and models that explain what’s actually happening right now, let alone predicting what will happen in the future. To put it bluntly it’s really hard to know anything definitively.
But this cold, harsh reality leaves few experts and scientists undeterred because their paycheck, the grants they receive for their research, and their tenure track all depend on them knowing lots of things and telling us all just how much they know.
Here we will now take a short detour to point out that the same syndrome that exists among academic elites also plagues the political and bureaucratic elites as well. When you get paid to be someone’s expert they’re expecting you to give them they’re money’s worth.
This is not to say experts should never be trusted so much as it is to say nobody should be implicitly trusted without critical examination and logical evaluation of their position. Furthermore, the ultimate arbiter of truth and reality is the individual, not some external “expert” who is no less human than you are.
And this is really where the rubber hits the road, as the pundits who serve as mouthpieces for the so-called experts like to say. Like every other matter in life, the principle of personal property ownership shows us the way forward.
You own your body, your life, your choices, your existence. No other person on Earth has any moral, intellectual, or philosophical right to compel you to do anything that violates the sovereignty that is your natural right by virtue of your existence. Even if they’re an expert. Even if they’re the County Health Director or if they’ve given several very important TED Talks.
Your life belongs to you. Your choices belong to you. You are THE expert in your own life. Don’t be afraid to act like it.