Educating the consumer is not the answer

My hackles rise when I hear people talk about needing to “educate the consumer,” whether I’m in a room full of science communication folk or listening to someone expound on how and why people don’t fully appreciate Their Favorite Wine Region. Some of my attitude is surely unjustified. Education is great, and if I didn’t think so, surely I wouldn’t have subjected myself to so much of it. But when the answer seems to be more education, I think that we have to step back and ask whether we’re looking at all of this the wrong way.

A very well-known sociologist named Dr. Michel Callon said that the strategies we use to bring someone into a relationship – or to keep them there – can be described as “prosthetic” or “habilitative.” Those terms come from him talking about people with disabilities being able to be a part of society, but they work just as well for talking about people we want to become wine-lovers, or lovers of Rioja, or people who understand German riesling. Prosthetic technologies fix the person so that they fit. They give the person with cerebral palsy leg braces or a wheelchair so that they’re more like normal people and can function around town. Habilitative technologies change the network of things and people and institutions around the person so that the person fits and can function. Instead of telling the kid with CP, “you’re broken and need to be fixed,” they say “let’s make society such that you fit.” You still give the kid leg braces or a wheelchair, but the assumptions underneath are different. You may have noticed that the “habilitative” approach to thinking about physical and (less so, but still) mental disabilities has become the way we do things now (at least in the US and Europe).

Here’s the thing: wine education can work the same way. What if we stopped saying that the deficient person needed to be fixed – by more education – and started thinking about how to change the environment? Callon puts it this way: “In one case, the injunction is, ‘Be like the others!’ In the other, it is ‘Be what you are!’” Instead of seeing the ignoramus clutching the bowl of his wine glass with all five fingers like a coffee mug and telling him that he’s holding his glass wrong, we’d use stemless glasses, or design glasses with stems that made the correct hand position obvious, or maybe relax the whole idea about how we hold the glass if we decide that being inclusive is more important than proper wine temperature (and let’s be honest; when we’re most concerned with inclusivity is also when we’re probably least concerned with wine temperature). We put an infographic on the back label of riesling to indicate how sweet it is. We “make wine more approachable.”

We’ve pretty much accepted the idea of wheelchair-accessible ramps* for public buildings. So why do these sorts of “habilitative” wine technologies make us (okay; me) uneasy? First, no one’s plopping a ramp in the middle of the steps at the Jefferson Memorial. There’s aesthetics to consider, whether you want to call upon some abstract idea of beauty or just insist upon not drastically altering a particular experience for everyone. Second there’s tradition: do we place a higher value on maintaining a tradition, or on opening up an experience to more people. But third, and most importantly: I don’t think we really want wine to be inclusive. Our wine culture is about exclusivity. It’s about having something special, and often something not everyone has. It’s about aspiring to a luxurious lifestyle that excludes a whole bunch of people by definition. I don’t want everyone to be able to love first-growth Burgundy. We have all manner of reasons for not wanting to “dumb down wine.”

Dumbing down wine” is only one really limiting angle in a world that gives us so many more options. What if we made it easier for people to appreciate the complex flavors in good wine by changing the foods they’re exposed to earlier in life? (Has anyone studied whether the British appreciation for tannic reds has anything to do with their habituation to lots of black tea from childhood?) What if we made wine-drinking a normal part of everyday food culture rather than a special-occasion beverage or a naughty indulgence, maybe first-off by changing the drinking age and putting wine in supermarkets next to the bread and cheese?

Even if the job description for wine marketers reads “change the world,” I doubt that’s really what anyone had in mind. But maybe we can start with changing the idea that if people need educating, it might be you as much as them that stands to change.

*It’s worth noting that Callon calls a wheelchair-accessible ramp and the whole idea of “accessibility” a compromise between prostheses and habilitation; in a sense, we’re just giving folks prostheses that sit on the building instead of on the person. Habilitation, in his sense, is more involved than that.


Why you can’t read scientific research

Caution: vitriol ahead.

I recently interviewed about fifty winemakers and growers in two countries, and surveyed a few hundred more, about information resources and what they do with them. They didn’t complain about scientific research being a bunch of unreadable scientific gobbledygook. But they did complain about research being unreadable – literally, unreadable – because they can’t access the darn articles.

If you want the guts of someone’s research – exactly what methods they used, the data before they’re sanitized into tidy conclusions – mega-publishing companies* ask you to pay US $30 or more to buy or even rent the full text of an academic article. Abstracts are usually free and give you a summary of the main idea. But abstracts are no help if you want details. If you’re trying to ascertain whether the research relates to your practical work, you probably want details.

Seriously, does anyone ever empty their metaphorical pocket money for a single-article access? Ever? You’re either fortunate enough to work for a university or company that publishers can blackmail into paying extortionist fees for “institutional access,” or you do without.

How did this happen? Scientific publishing started exactly 350 years ago in England and France when the research community became big enough that sending letters to each other wasn’t working any more. Then, (I’m quoting Lyman and Chodorow**),

University presses and disciplinary associations were founded to disseminate research in the original cycle of scholarly communication. The faculty produced the work to be published; non-profit publishers organized the distribution of knowledge; the university library bought the published work at an artificially high price, as a subsidy for learned societies; and the faculty used this literature as the foundation for further research and teaching.”

And then a lot of societies sold their journals to mega-publishers when they couldn’t support the infrastructure to move to digital. And then those mega-publishers could increase their prices because (I’m quoting Lariviere, Haustein, and Mongeon),

Unlike usual suppliers, authors provide their goods without financial compensation and consumers (i.e. readers) are isolated from the purchase. Because purchase and use are not directly linked, price fluctuations do not influence demand. Academic libraries, contributing 68% to 75% of journal publishing revenues [31], are atypical buyers because their purchases are mainly controlled by budgets. Regardless of their information needs, they have to manage with less as prices increase. Due to the publisher’s oligopoly, libraries are more or less helpless, for in scholarly publishing each product represents a unique value and cannot be replaced.”

As an academic, I’m hog-tied. I have to publish in good journals to get a good job, and then to keep it. Most of the best journals are owned by mega-publishers; the smaller, independent, often open-access ones are usually newer, smaller, and not as competitive or high-profile.

We all hate this state of affairs, but most of us are too afraid that we won’t get a job/make tenure/pay off our student loans if we don’t comply. So we comply. I’ve submitted or published six articles in the past two years. Three have been to independent open-access journals, three to mega-pubs. Avoiding the mega-publishers would have been the difference between a top-tier publication and one much further down the pile, not to mention getting feedback from great scholars whose names I recognize from the top journals. As a PhD student going on the job market next year there are only so many risks I’m willing to take. And I’m fortunate to work in a subfield where a few of my top-tier choices are open-access independents.

Academics don’t get paid for the journal articles they submit. We hand over our work for free, and then we review other peoples’ submissions for free, which means hours of reading and providing detailed feedback. This is part of the academic “job,” so we’re paid for it indirectly by our university salaries. Universities have to pay researchers, and universities have to pay incredibly high subscription fees for journal access. Universities get money from student tuition fees, taxpayer funds, and special bequests from rich people. If you’re a taxpayer or have ever paid for someone’s college education, you’ve paid for academic publishing. And the mega-publishers are still asking you to pay $30-40 to read single articles on the internet.

Publisher revenues have doubled since journals moved online. Printing a physical journal is expensive. Putting it online is much, much less expensive. Mega-publishers now turn profits on par with Pfizer and the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China. Scroll down to the discussions and conclusions of this open-access article on “The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era” for a brief but excellent account of more of the details.

The best news is that this supreme state of idiocy is on unsteady ground.

As of this coming year, every United States federal government research organization has mandated that all articles published as a result of public funding must by law be made fully and freely available online. To everyone, whether you’re proprietor of a schmancy boutique winery in Napa or a young assistant winemaker at a small place in South Africa or Uruguay or Armenia or are a random curious lady sitting in a living room in Northern Ireland. So there’s the good news. You’ll see fewer articles blocked by stupid paywalls, and if you’re an American taxpayer you’ll stop paying twice for some research.

What can you do to help bring down even more of those paywalls? Support the resistance. Keep finding ways to avoid paying publishers. Share. Contact researchers directly if you have questions about an article you can’t access: an email address is usually sitting next to the abstract, and most researchers are happy to talk about (and share) their work. And pat your friendly local academic on the back when they say they’ve published OA.

* Elsevier, SAGE, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, Taylor & Francis, John Wiley

**I’m actually “through-quoting” here, which means that I’m using the same quote another article already used and that I didn’t actually read the original source. It’s considered bad academic practice because you don’t know what the original context was (and thus could be misunderstanding the original author), and because the source you’re actually reading could have made a mistake. But this is my blog, and you get the gist.

Is there a difference between Apothic Red and your average Napa cab?

My Palate Press article for July asks whether wine is becoming sweeter, and why. It may seem a stupid question. Of course wine is becoming sweeter. Ask everyone who’s been talking about Meiomi for the past week. But there’s a problem. Sweet wine has always been praised as a good things. Ask the Greeks, or the Romans, or John Locke. Now, their definition of “sweet” and ours might not be the same, and no one’s going to pull out a bottle they’ve been saving from Aristotle’s wine cellar to prove the case one way or the other, but we know that sweet wine isn’t just the new tipple of the undereducated. Syrupy Tokaji isn’t called the wine of kings for nothing.

It earned that name, though, because it was rare, precious, and frightfully expensive, not just because it’s delicious. No question that the various, dubious miracles of modern technology make it possible for everyday wine to be sweeter than ever. Excellent filtration systems keep bugs from lapping up extra sugar and spoiling wines with residual sugar after bottling. A lot of wine without residual sugar tastes sweeter because of riper fruit flavors and higher alcohol (alcohol tastes sweet), thanks to the fashionability of extra “hang time,” warmer climates, and all manner of viticultural improvements. The modern palate has come to expect (and demand, it seems) those flavors in unprecedented ways.

Apothic Red and your average popular Napa cabernet both taste sweet. So, is there a difference? Simon Woolf, who always has something intelligent to say, pointed out in a comment on that Palate Press piece that I could just have easily argued that wine is becoming blander, rather than sweeter, and that the palate of the average consumer has been dumbed down. Are Apothic Red and your average modernly-sweet dry red wine part of the same trend, or do they represent different ones?

Simon calls them different, but I’d say that they’re the same idea taken to different degrees. Mass-market wines, whether $8 grocery store blends, or $22 California pinots, or $60 Napa cabs, are made to sell; sweet sells because it takes so little effort to appreciate, and because it suits the modern ketchup palate. Having more money to spend doesn’t always mean having spent more of it developing your palate.

The counter-argument says super-ripe cabs are a phenomenon of winemakers/growers playing with their new toys. We can make riper wines, so we will make riper wines because they’re new, and novel, and maybe because they demonstrate New World prowess at ripening and our God-given superiority over the French and their inconsistent vintages. Cheap sweet wines, on the other hand, are just pandering to the soda-swilling public, plus covering up for grapes that have nothing else to offer flavor-wise.

The original winemaking motivation behind Apothic and modern cab might be different, though I’d expect that anyone who made high-quality overripe reds for the novelty has gotten bored and moved to something more interesting. The reason why they stick, though? The same. Over-hybridized year-round picked-to-ship grocery store produce, packaged products engineered with sugar and salt for maximum acceptance with minimum effort, and refrigerators (less call for fermented foods, and less spoilage, frankly) haven’t dumbed down everyone’s palates. If you’re an American, you’re more likely to prefer molecular gastronomy to McDonalds if you’re well-off, it’s true. But then you’re also not the person buying sweet-ripe Napa cabs; you’re pouring Assyrtiko with that kimchi (because let’s be honest; you’re eating kimchi, and half the folk eating molecular are only doing it because it’s trendy). Apothic, Meiomi, and high-end fruit bombs are all doing the same thing for people whose palates have more in common than their pocketbooks. Why is Meiomi, a flagrantly sweet red wine, doing so well at $22? Because a lot of ketchup palates have found mid-range PR jobs at dot-coms and the like and don’t want to take $12 bottles to a party. And because our idiotic drinking laws and backward wine-consuming culture meant they never learned about all of the other interesting flavors in wine growing up, but that is a handful of different questions for another day.