Fooling Yourself and Others: The Subjective Randomness of Wine Tasting

I know of friends who swear by their wine, and for good reason. I enjoy a glass or two from time to time. Dry or sweet, smooth or tart, red or white or one of hundreds of shades of the beverage, wine is a taste that millions of people enjoy. When picking up some at the store, I'm rarely paying much attention to price except to avoid paying premium prices. I've always enjoyed the inexpensive brands, and not just because they are cheap. While there are some vintages and makers that have disappointed, most bottles, whatever the cost or vinyard, have satisfied my desire.

There are plenty of people, perhaps including some of my wine-drinking friends, who hold on to a belief that there is a significant difference between wines, that there are significant and discernable differences between wines rated at 95 and those rated at 85. Perhaps there are. Maybe it does matter what a judge or panel of judges has determined about the wine's quality. How would we know if they might be on to something, and more importantly, are they capable of consistently telling the difference?

The answer, of course, is to test judges in a scientific way. Can they truly tell the difference between an expensive rare vintage and a "Two-Buck Chuck" also-ran? Is a wine rated 90 so much different than one scored at 86? Wine connoisseurs would argue that there certainly is a chasm of quality. And that opinion matters to winemakers where it counts: sales:

A few points may not sound much but it is enough to swing a contest – and gold medals are worth a significant amount in extra sales for wineries.

There have been several attempts to study the value that judges add to the wine world. Medals and sales contracts depend on getting good scores, and many a vintage has been made or broken based on a few digits recorded after spare drops were swilled and spat from a judge's mouth. 

An article in the Guardian offers an intriguing look at one of the latest attempts to measure and quantify how well judges do when it comes to wine tasting and consistency. The results are not terribly surprising if you've followed earlier, similar research by Richard Wiseman, Robin Goldstein, Frederic Brochet, and others. The phrase 'coin-flip' seems to apply to what Robert Hodgson found.

"The results are disturbing," says Hodgson from the Fieldbrook Winery in Humboldt County, described by its owner as a rural paradise. "Only about 10% of judges are consistent and those judges who were consistent one year were ordinary the next year.

"Chance has a great deal to do with the awards that wines win."

These judges are not amateurs either. They read like a who's who of the American wine industry from winemakers, sommeliers, critics and buyers to wine consultants and academics. In Hodgson's tests, judges rated wines on a scale running from 50 to 100. In practice, most wines scored in the 70s, 80s and low 90s.

Results from the first four years of the experiment, published in the Journal of Wine Economics, showed a typical judge's scores varied by plus or minus four points over the three blind tastings. A wine deemed to be a good 90 would be rated as an acceptable 86 by the same judge minutes later and then an excellent 94.

Hodgson's research has been ongoing since 2005, and what he's published on the study hasn't made him any friends in the judges circles. What he discovered is what, if you really think about it, we'd expect to find. A lot goes into the experience of tasting wine (or any other experience you may have). The way the breeze or fans are blowing, the people and conversations around at that moment the wine touches lips, even the effect the last wine had on your thoughts, it is nigh impossible to taste a wine in a vacuum. 

"I think there are individual expert tasters with exceptional abilities sitting alone who have a good sense, but when you sit 100 wines in front of them the task is beyond human ability," he says. "We have won our fair share of gold medals but now I have to say we were lucky."

So what's the take away for my friends, for me, those of us who enjoy wine? Forget the critics, forget the judges, forget the labels and price tags. Pick up a bottle or two and try them. You'll soon discover what types of wine are your favorites and which you don't enjoy as well. You'll find winemakers you like more and less. Don't be afraid to take advice from friends, and even from the 'experts,' but don't rely on scores and medals to direct you to the ones which you'll find most pleasing. Use your tongue to find what works best for you, and explore the numerous options available to you.

And don't be surprised when something as subjective as the taste of wine turns out to be hard to 'judge.' The lesson that Hodgson and other researchers really are hammering into us is that following the science, doing research and analyzing the cold data can help us decide more about the quality of the advice we're getting than simply assuming that a network of 'experts' has it all figured out. Wine judges are just one set of experts whose opinions matter a lot but seem to be poor value for their money. I'm sure we can think of more than a few more like them. I'm looking at you, Dr. Oz

As if you need one more example, I'll leave you with one of my favorite segments on the Penn and Teller show Bullshit, which includes a 'water sommelier.'

I'm Not Saying It's Aliens...

One of the key elements of the scientific process is that it demands repeatability. Observing something one time, especially something out of the ordinary or unexpected, and failing to observe it again, is usually cause for a casual dismissal of the event until it can be repeated. 

And along with repeatability, there is a fairly conservative attitude toward explanations: simpler is better, familiar processes and objects are more likely than unobserved and uncharacterized hypotheses. There are always exceptions, and skeptics and scientists alike should remain open to possibilities outside what is expected and known. Journalists, though, have a different agenda, and headline writers... well, let's just say that the more unusual and provokative suggestion they can connect to the story, the better. 

For years, a phenomenon known as 'Fast Radio Bursts' (FRBs) have been detected by only one source: Parkes Observatory in New South Wales, Australia. These bursts were infrequent, of unknown origin, and were never seen by telescopes elsewhere in the world. Some of the bursts, such as several observed in 2010, were clearly terrestrial. But others seem to have been received from celestial sources. 

Interesting, but without more evidence, many researchers wondered if there was a technical problem at Parkes that caused it to report events that didn't exist. 

Then in 2012, the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico recorded an FRB, and one of the researchers claims more reports from other telescopes will come forth in the near future.

This changes everything, from a scientific perspective. Now that there appears to be some confirmation that these events are not the result of a single telescope malfunctioning, the speculation as to what they represent has begun in earnest.

There are many hypotheses, most of them involving rather well-established objects, such as black holes, pulsars, and neutron stars. There is a body of research to confirm that these objects exist and astronomers have gotten very good at finding and defining them. A lot still remains to be known, though, and in that gap comes plenty of room for FRBs to operate. Working from existing research, with more data from FRBs coming available, astronomers will begin to test the hypotheses and eliminate those which are unlikely. This is the way science works.

Cue the aliens. I'm not wholly belittling this hypothesis, to be sure it could be non-terrestrial civilizations causing these events. It is possible. Even plausible, in a certain light, that we would be able to observe bursts of radio waves coming from civilizations. And you can bet that headline writers are already grasping at the possibility to sensationalize their work:

Mysterious fast radio bursts from outer space: Astronomers baffled, admit they could be alien in origin

Or this one:

Mysterious Radio Bursts From Space: Could it be Aliens?

Or this one (am I really linking to the Daily Mail?):

Are these mystery radio bursts messages from ALIENS? Freak frequency from outside the Milky Way baffles astronomers 

Occam's Razor demands that, without enough evidence to pick which option is the mostly correct, we go with the one that demands the fewest assumptions, the one for which we have fewer complications. While we may not be able to differentiate between the hypotheses which include black holes and pulsars, we have no evidence that there are advanced alien civilizations, nor any non-terrestrial civilizations at all. Not yet, anyway. That doesn't stop headlines from adding the tempting possibility that aliens are behind the FRBs.

I get it. Headline writers have one job: grab the attention of potential readers and get them to click a link or open a newspaper (or so I hear, the latter is becoming less relevant every day). Including a mention of aliens is a lot more likely to get people to read an article than the much more honest and reflective of opinion verbiage, such as seen in this headline from Gizmodo

No One Knows What's Causing These Mysterious Radio Bursts From Space

So when you see headlines which make grandiose claims involving aliens, miracle cures, or other verbiage which demands a great deal of evidence, and proof of which would be the biggest news story of the year, always take it with a grain of salt. Even when researchers make statements like

The nice things about this in the current stage is that we really don't know what these bursts are caused by. And so the sky's the limit in some respects

Please don't jump immediately to this:

A Primer on Male Circumcision

I've never really thought much about my own circumcision. I certainly don't remember it, and there is no sense of 'loss' or 'change' over that part of my body which was removed when I was very young. The way my genitals look now is 'normal' to me, and the only way I've ever known them to be. My parents had me circumcised because it was also 'normal' for Christians in the United States to do so, and perhaps, in some small part, because there were claims made about the health benefits of doing so. 

We were nominally Christian. Social Christians. We went to church from time to time as a way to get out of the house, but beyond those occasional Sunday outtings, religion was not a part of our lives. Yet, despite that, my parents had decided that chopping off a part of my body was the right thing to do, a religious ritual worth following, and these days, I am concerned that millions of people will so easily accept that cutting off a part of the male anatomy is 'normal.'  I decided to learn more about the ritual, its history, and the arguments for and against the procedure. My research changed the way I approach the subject somewhat, and left me with a more nuanced stance on the issue. 

History of Circumcision

A good place to start learning about most any subject is Wikipedia. No, it is not a primary source, and yes, it can and does contain inaccuracies. But it is, in my experience, more accurate on most basic subjects than any random non-Wikipedia source you might find, and so I started there. Circumcision, like a lot of rituals reaching back thousands of years, has no clear 'beginning.' Various theories hold that it was a way of increasing fertility, a religious ritual, cleanliness, a way to 'welcome' a boy into manhood (ouch!), a means of telling the 'in group' from the 'out group', and as an anti-masturbation procedure.

This list is not comprehensive, and other theories have been proposed, some more plausible than others. Regardless, the tradition of circumcision likely goes back to sub-equatorial African societies, with surviving evidence for the ritual found in Ancient Egypt. By the time written histories had become common, Semitic populations had adopted it widely. Judaism has a long history of performing the act, and several passages make clear that God demanded it of the chosen people. Genesis 17:10-14 (NIV):

10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people;he has broken my covenant.”


Male circumcision ebbed and flowed over hundreds of years, some cultures gradually adopting the practice, whether as a whole or for special castes or classes, while others, such as the Greeks, frowned upon the act and saw the ritual decline. 

Jews, however, continued to hold to the doctrine written in Genesis, and due to perscution from various groups, developed alternative ways of conducting a circumcision so as to still appear uncut. This lead, eventually, to a step in the process known as Metzitzah, which involved a mohel sucking the blood from the cut as part of the ritual. While this practice has been largely eliminated, it nonetheless continues to this day, and every few months, there are news stories of infants contracting Herpes and other conditions as a result.

Christians, on the other hand, went the other way, tending to disfavor circumcision, at least for a while. Paul said that it didn't matter. There was strong pressure to become separated from the Jewish populations, and along with that, circumcision waned amongst Christians. According to the Gospel of Thomas Saying 53, Jesus said:

"His disciples said to him, "is circumcision useful or not?" He said to them, "If it were useful, their father would produce children already circumcised from their mother. Rather, the true circumcision in spirit has become profitable in every respect.""

The Catholic Church condemned it, and as the practice waned, the ritual was largely isolated in Jewish, Muslim, and some tribal societies.

The Revival of Circumcision

It has only been in the last 150 years or so that circumcision has been seen as a positive and desirable practice in English-speaking parts of the world, and specifically in the United States, where adoption of the practice began to grow strongly in the latter decades of the 19th Century. According to Wikipedia:

There were two related concerns that led to the widespread adoption of this surgical procedure at this time. The first, was a growing belief within the medical community regarding the efficacy of circumcision in reducing the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis. The second, was the notion that circumcision would lessen the urge towards masturbation, or "self abuse" as it was often called.

It was the explosion of medical practice and knowledge that helped bring back circumcision. It was also the revival of puritanistic Christianity, which viewed masturbation as undesirable or sinful, that fueled the growth of the ritual. Together, these two forces established the groundwork for the modern, widespread belief in the United States and other English-speaking countries that circumcision is what is 'normal.'

The Benefits

There was contention for decades as to the medical benefits of circumcision. The position of the American Medical Association was changed in the late 1980s, and refined in 2011, altering the stance that there were no medical advantages to circumcision. Addressing attempts to ban the procedure, the organization stated in 2011:

"There is strong evidence documenting the health benefits of male circumcision, and it is a low-risk procedure, said Peter W. Carmel, M.D., AMA president. "Today the AMA again made it clear that it will oppose any attempts to intrude into legitimate medical practice and the informed choices of patients."

In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics concurred, stating that "the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweight the risks."

Among those benefits, according to researchers and top medical organizations, are included:

The Adverse Affects

Despite the overall benefits 'outweigh[ing] the risks', as stated by the AAP, the procedure is not without such risks. Among them are:

Final Thoughts

Before I started researching this subject, I was fully prepared to find evidence of harm outweighing benefits. I'd read stories, such as the ones involving ultra-conservative Jewish rituals that passed herpes on to infants, and the occasional anecdote of a botched procedure. I expected to find no compelling evidence that circumcision had enough significant benefits to encourage its practice.

Now, I'm less certain of that stance. I'm still unconvinced that the overall benefit (the reduced infection risks, the reduced cancer risks) are significant enough to overcome my strongly-held objections to cutting off the foreskin of an infant who cannot consent. That said, the reversal of the medical community, especially the AMA and AAP, on this issue was surprising and one I did not expect. It is clear that there is significant research which shows the benefits and as such, I'm less against this than I was going in.

That said, I fall back on my statement above about consent. Many of the benefits of circumcision are sexual in nature. For the first dozen-plus years of a boy's life, the benefits appear to have no statistical significance. The idea that a part of my body was removed without my consent and for what, in my non-expert opinion, is a marginal reduction in risk, makes me side with being generally opposed to the procedure until a boy is capable of understanding the situation and the risks involved.

Given that, I seriously doubt many would opt in their early-to-late teens to be circumsized. Even with the religious compulsion in Abrahamic cultures, if allowed to choose freely, it is hard to imagine that boys in their teens would opt to be circumsized at the same rate that their parents opted to do so earlier in life. 

This is a more complicated situation than I first believed, with a long history and a series of twists that leave us with a majority of the US male population circumsized without first consenting. More research needs to be done, obviously, and more compelling benefits need to be proven before I'm willing to agree that circumcision is medically 'necessary' and not just a marginal benefit. But, clearly, I've become more nuanced in my stance and am more willing to explore the concept as evidence for and against is produced over time.

US Senate Fails to Pass Resolution Confirming Climate Change Reality

Congress is hardly the right place for scientific debates to take place. Politicians are rarely scientists and have clear conflicts of interest when oil companies and other powerful lobbies provide millions in donations and other assistance and 'guidance'. Yet, even so, it seems hardly controversial to suggest that climate change is real

Cue the US Senate and Resolution 524. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and 21 cosponsors brought forth the resolution which is described as "a resolution expressing the sense of the Senate regarding global climate change." Although the text of the resolution is not currently available, the "sense" was a simple acceptance of the reality of climate change.

Cue Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe who blocked the bill. From

Inhofe said he objected to the resolution because the earth had experienced “no warming for the last 15 years;” and because 9,000 scientists had signed a petition expressing doubt that greenhouse gases cause global warming.

Despite the blockage, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse took issue with Inhofe's claims and spent about seven minutes spelling out the overwhelming consensus on the issue.

Further Info on Topics Discussed on Stratosphere Sarasota

I was a guest on the WSLR radio show Stratosphere Sarasota this morning and I'd like to offer sources for more information on the subjects that came up. 

Creationism in Public Education:

  • Butler Act: The Tennessee law that prohibited teaching of evolution and lead to the events in the Scopes Monkey Trial.
  • Scopes Monkey Trial: The famous trial that found John Scopes guilty of violating the Butler Act (later overturned on a technicality). 
  • Tennessee 'monkey bill': Recent Tennessee law that opens science classrooms to the injection of creationism and 'teaching the controversy.'
  • Schools teaching creationism and taking tax money to do so.
  • The Revisionaries:  Documentary which recorded events at the Texas School Board meetings which lead to insertion of pro-creationist verbiage in science textbooks.
  • Kitzmiller v Dover: The landmark case that stripped the Dover School District of the ability to insert creationism into public school science classes.
  • Of Pandas and People: The creationist-guided textbook which Dover attempted to provide to students and which popularized the term 'Intelligent Design.'

Town of Greece v Galloway:

The Hobby Lobby Decision:

  • The case which established the right of some corporations to refuse to cover some health care on religious grounds.
  • Satanists protest 'informed consent' based on this decision

Dr. Oz Appearing Before Congress:

Suncoast Skeptics Speaker Series: