Saturday, 5 March 2022

As We Hear It: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes (by T. S. Gnu)


Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

By T. S. Gnu


The value of articles in a magazine covering a given field lies in the new information (or well-presented summary of old information) that it conveys to the reader. The columnist watches the industry for new ideas and technologies, improvements to older technology, trends that may be worth keeping an eye on for better (e.g. the availability of ever better audio equipment at lower price points) or worse (e.g. the ever-increasing dynamic compression in recorded releases), and then cogently presents these to the reader. In light of recent positions that have been taken up both in columns and editorials, it behooves one to ask: Who Watches the Watchers?

The default stance that we see is often that these people have been in the business for a while and are, therefore, experts whose opinions must carry the weight of that expertise. In order for our stalwart writers in the audio press to be considered experts, they need to have carried out some research in the area that they are claiming expertise; mere experiential anecdotes do not fulfill this requirement. Even if one were to acknowledge their self-professed expertise/authority, there is a requirement — a duty even — to question the content of their statements before the statements can be taken seriously.

We have the situation of people who are proficient in one field who then attempt to transfer that expertise to an area outside of their proficiency. An example of this is the paeans to MQA by Jim Austin, John Atkinson and Robert Harley, all of whom published articles that were essentially public relations blurbs for Meridian/MQA/Bob Stuart without any critical questioning of the claims of this supposed Copernican Revolution.

The burden of proof has always lain with those making questionable claims, and mere anecdotal experiences do not meet that standard. As the late Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The interesting thing about MQA is that there was a consensus amongst the experts (in the fields of mathematics, communication theory and digital signal processing) regarding the fallacies presented by the purveyors of MQA. There was no requirement for any formal argument on the issue, yet the self-proclaimed authorities remained invested in their opinions long after the science was litigated, always falling back on personal observations as rebuttals.

The notion of "there are unmeasured things that affect sound quality" when they push cables (USB, network, power, etc.) that should merely be built to specifications, is essentially indistinguishable from the arguments of anti-vaxxers. These authors don't subscribe to any of the principles of the science that they supposedly follow, but they instead just want to turn their sphere of influence into a regressive theocratic structure with them at the top of the heap. This pulpit that they have preached from is slowly beginning to show cracks in its supporting foundation and the claims proclaimed from thereon are being questioned critically.

There often arises the comment that if one doesn’t find a magazine informative then one must simply not read it instead of spending time criticizing it. This conveniently overlooks the idea that the criticism isn’t aimed at the absence of information but is, in actual fact, aimed at the presence of misinformation and/or disinformation. There is a duty of sorts to challenge the propagation of disinformation because ignoring it eventually normalizes it, and this eventually leads to the Balkanization of ideas such that discussions based on common acceptable facts cannot occur — precisely because the disinformation propagates alternative realities based on wishful thinking.

Columnists (who don’t appear to live up to the definition of the term journalists) are more than happy to reside in their version of Narnia that has a tenuous connection to reality, but unfortunately, they lure a significant segment of today's audiophiles looking for some easily attainable sonic nirvana that they require to fulfil some need. They manage to get their online page views (and here we must not increase those by directly linking back to the site, because any publicity is literally monetarily beneficial) by running manufacturers' claims as is without any commentary on the *facts* that disprove these claims. Recent articles could lead some readers to think that the magazines are now mainly in the business of writing merely advertorials and, that, is a far cry from journalism. Journalism has its roots in curiosity despite, sadly, much like the cat, curiosity having killed journalists (Jamal Khashoggi and Daphne Caruana Galizia to name but two).

Over the years the public has allowed the members of the mainstream audio press to turn their jobs into sinecures. The rationale for this charitable statement lies in a paraphrasing of Stephen Fry, “The only reason [members of the audio press] do not know much is because they do not care much. They are incurious. Incuriosity is the oddest and most foolish failing there is.


Several good exemplars of this lack of knowledge and accompanying incuriosity may be found in Jim Austin’s recent column: https://www[dot]stereophile[dot]com/content/wilson-audio-specialties-alexx-v-loudspeaker (note the lack of a live link—no point in increasing page views there):
  • When parroting some marketing blurb from the manufacturer, he follows with, “I'm not sure what "monotonic" means in this context—perhaps that the energy it absorbs is broadband, so it doesn't impose specific colorations on the sound.” Well, it would’ve been helpful to ask Wilson just what exactly they meant by the term “monotonic” instead of putting forth an opinion that is, frankly, a guess.
  • Then we have the delightful: “Why does a front baffle need to have different properties than the rest of the speaker cabinet? I'm not sure; it could be as simple as being easier to machine, or engineered to hold screws better for easier, more permanent driver-mounting (footnote 2).” But it isn’t as simple, is it? In fact, the footnote refers to Wilson claiming that the choice of material specifically has to do with vibration control.
  • Listening to MQA tracks while reviewing the speakers and extolling the virtues of “time alignment” is stretching one's credibility to the point of breaking when it has been established that there are issues in the time domain as a result of the MQA filters.
  • A clear lack of understanding that physical driver alignment has an effect on lobing that was first mentioned by Linkwitz and Riley in the mid-70s. That movement of the drivers caused a perceptible change in the sound as a result of phenomenon clearly explained by Linkwitz/Riley results in amazement and wonderment exhibits lack of understanding and insight into the very thing that a reviewer is supposed to be reviewing. Furthermore, the notion that Dave Wilson was unaware of why his speakers sounded different when he pulled on strings does raise some interesting questions regarding the former staff writer of The Absolute Sound turned speaker designer.
As Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times said, “Unabashed, persistent curiosity is the wellspring of great journalism. Look for the things you don’t understand, and keep asking questions until you do.” Instead, we have advertorials and “reviews” that simply parrot press statements or marketing scripts, that promote pseudoscience, and have little basis in known science while making arguments from authority. Not only is this not providing useful information, but it sometimes actively puts forth misinformation or, even, disinformation.


The rebuttals to the critiques that point out the lack of rigour in the “review” or the peddling of views inconsistent with current scientific knowledge often appeal to the credentials (authority?) of the writers. A particularly interesting perspective was provided by Atkinson prior to his departure as editor in his comments about the credibility of this blog's host. However, when the lack of credibility in pushing an anti-science position is called out, we seem to then be presented with the vapid, intellectually bankrupt position that just because the "experts do not know everything" it ought to bestow columnists the same credibility despite them not knowing anything. We also periodically get presented with the odd chestnut of the scientific credibility of some of the columnists/editors by a mention of some brush with the field in the past. Even without debating the scientific credibility of past associations, this appeal to supposed credential and authority is fairly easily countered in a manner parallel to:
Scientist: ‘Creation researchers’ are not scientists because they do not follow the standards of science.
Creationist: Person X is a creation researcher and a scientist.
Scientist: Person X is not a scientist because they do not follow the standards of science.
Then there is the old chestnut of, “scientists have been wrong in the past, therefore we shouldn’t trust them now.” The problem is that if we follow this argument through to its logical conclusion, then we should never trust scientists about ANYTHING, including gravity, the germ theory of disease, that we require to breathe oxygen, etc. This is not a fallacy because it actually is the necessary outcome of the argument. In other words, this is not a stretch of the argument to an absurd conclusion, but instead shows that the argument itself actually does result in an absurd conclusion. Although the bizarre statement of, “science doesn’t know everything” is obviously countered with, “Yeah, but science can tell us a heckuva lot about everything we do know,” it still gets trotted out or encouraged. These views are frequently used by anti-vaxxers, creationists, flat-earthers and global warming deniers who like to state some variation of the above comments. A writer looking for credibility ought not to to be using these hollow platitudes.

The other interesting bit that leads to the self-correcting property of science is the ability to acknowledge one’s past work that is incorrect or falsified (Green CD pen, Shakti stones/holographs, Marigo dot stickers, etc.). Blithely ignoring one’s past blindness, makes it debatable as to whether one can see clearly in the present. The Internet is littered with endorsements of, now debunked, bizarre claims by the very self-appointed experts who claim authority and knowledge. While it is always hard admitting to oneself that one has been wrong, it does seem there's a disturbing Trumpian ploy, amongst the MQA evangelists for example, to rather than admitting said mistakes, double down. To quote John Adams, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

One of the biggest problems of the anti-science "subjectivists" is that they act as if they are immune from every single known cognitive pitfall that is well established as being part of the human condition; effectively, they believe that any other argument is flawed, while being blissfully unaware of the malodorous manure that they swill about and wade in. If they can detect subtle changes in any tiny part of the “listening experience,” it is because they have the “training” and the Golden Ears. If they are unable to distinguish anything in a blind test, it is because science has failed them (yet they tout what proportion of correct identification they make on the odd test!). When they identify correctly it’s because they deserve the credit, but if they fail to do so it’s because the system failed them. It’s a willful, blind dissonance that is surprisingly proudly rallied behind. Just because the self-professed experts get something correct ought not to let one assume that they are always correct; after all, even a blind squirrel will sometimes find a nut. It is painful to see the disconnect in the following exchange, of which many a columnist is guilty (and proud) of:
Columnist: All true audiophiles trust their ears over measurements.
Rational audiophile: I’m an audiophile and I sure don’t trust my ears without listening blind.
Columnist: You can’t be a true audiophile because you don’t trust your ears.
While at first glance, it may seem that irrationality and dogma are gaining ground, it is somewhat comforting to see that these voices (loud and amplified as they are by the traditional megaphone of print magazines) are increasingly finding themselves in the minority. What we are seeing and hearing are the gasping death throes of people who are afraid of the increase in critical thinking, rationality, and accountability. In entrenching their indefensible views backed by their preternatural ability of self-delusion and self-deception, something particularly disturbing to see happens while in their positions as editors, the Atkinsons and Austins have abandoned rational skepticism in favour of preconceived beliefs. Calling out someone who doesn’t buy into the pile of pseudoscientific garbage as being an "objectivist" is similar to calling out someone who doesn’t collect stamps as a hobbyist. It is also interesting that Paul Miller, who does have scientific chops, allows this to continue as long as the page views bring in the dollars; it, after all, did not take long before the inimitable Mr. Arnott disappeared from the helm of Inner Fidelity once the readers abandoned ship in droves. While there may have been greater readership during the last while with pandemic restrictions on activity, it remains to be seen whether there will be a dwindling of readership that tires of the diminishing signal to noise ratio in audio magazines ahead.

Audio magazines are fetishizing equipment that is analogous to Swiss mechanical watches. The only problem is that they imply that one cannot possibly be getting the correct time using a cheap digital watch with a quartz mechanism, and that the time displayed by the former somehow “feels more right.” There is a cachet to owning and looking at and wearing an heirloom timepiece (I have a few treasured pieces), but it would be incorrect to say that they are more accurate than the Timex/Casio/smart watch du annĂ©e. They are not! I do wear the aforementioned watch at some formal occasions, but I wouldn’t presume to state that the time on a digital display is less “right” than that displayed on my wrist; in fact I would gladly state the the converse is far more likely to be true. Audio equipment falling into the audio jewelry category is desirable, and has its place; it just isn’t required to attain the “absolute sound” and certainly isn’t any closer to a more faithful reproduction of music or audio signal than any other well-engineered piece of equipment.


There is no middle ground between untruths and facts. There is no mid-point between civil scientific discourse and peddling fantasies. There is no midrange between non-science and science. To quote Robert Reich:

“Speaking truth means responding to the world as it is and denouncing the poisonous deceptions and fantasies. It means repudiating false equivalences and 'both sidesism' that gives equal weight to faith-based fantasies and truth. It means siding with and advancing science, standing on the side of logic, calling out deceit and impugning baseless theories along those who abet them.”

And, in order to do that in this present landscape of reviewing, it is upon us, as hobbyists, to Watch the Watchers.

--------------------

Thank you T. S. for a clear, no-nonsense essay. You brig up astute observations into the beliefs and logical fallacies frequently on display throughout subjective-only audiophile writings over the decades. Despite the logic and importance of your discussion, I imagine that such viewpoints would never be presented in the Industry Sponsored Media (eg. Stereophile and their "As We See It" editorial, among others) for open discussion.

Indeed if falsehoods are not constantly challenged, eventually they will take hold and become "commonly accepted" non-facts... Myths, faiths, received wisdoms. We certainly have many in the traditional audiophile "culture" that demand sober re-evaluation if the tenets of this hobby are to be consistent with truth.

Prevailing ideas may not be easy to change. Hopefully with time, audiophiles recognize the importance of striving to speak truth and appreciate persistent reality testing in the face of advertising and "propaganda" in its various forms. 

Even though these days, thankfully, we no longer have as many obvious scam products showing up in magazines like those "Shakti Stones", 2-4mm "Marigo Tuning Dots", "Machina Dynamica" stuff, etc. nor I think as much crazy talk on forums as a decade back, let's remain mindful that highly questionable products remain. "New" items like Synergistic Purple UEF Fuses (US$200 each) for example - if one have the gastrointestinal fortitude, have a look at Alan Sircom's February 2022 "review" in Hi-Fi+. Likewise, look at the purely subjective review of the Jitterbug FMJ in the recent Hi-Fi News & Record Review (February 28, 2022) with nothing but Andrew Everard's claims that "while the gains are subtle, they're typically worth having" under the guidance of Paul Miller (the AudioQuest JitterBug FMJ essentially does nothing when tested). Even if it "only" costs £49, why should audiophiles waste money knowing that every pound/dollar would still benefit the company, even if there's "little to lose" individually?

It's a capitalist world so I'm not saying that companies can't release snake oil and basically useless doohickeys like these - even if I think morally there should be a line drawn.

What would be nice to see is that audiophiles continue to grow in developing skepticism and, as appropriate, be assertive to speak truth against pseudoscientific schemes, cunning companies, and the shady characters that run them. I maintain that educated, reasonable individuals would never "join" a hobby when they run into such "cultish" beliefs within "mainstream" media sources. Is it any wonder why some lament that the "High End" side of the hobby might be dying out? 

There is currently terrible social mood and pain in the world - apparently brought forth with powerful ambition combined with propaganda. We also can see the wrath of nature as a result of "Zero COVID" policies in places like Hong Kong (a strong warning for mainland China). Despite these world turnings, I trust we can also maintain optimism for the months ahead.

As always, take care friends, I hope you're enjoying the music.

P.S.: For those wondering, while anonymous as per other articles on this site, I think I can reveal without any surprises ;-) that T. S. Gnu is a PhD scientist, and teaches as a professor in post-secondary education for his day job. And avid audiophile of course!

14 comments:

  1. There is an epidemic of post-modern anti-Enlightenment aka anti-science sentiment globally. This unfortunately at a time when science is most needed to counter global challenges. The lunatic fringe is growing; it's not just audiophiles.

    I do expect to see enthusiastic reviews of "biodynamically-created" loudspeakers and similar voodoo within the next eighteen months. However, bad audio is the least of our worries as the worship of ignorance grows.

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    1. Hey Terry,
      Yeah, I see that "post-modern" shift in all kinds of places as well. And indeed I think there could be growth in that lunatic fringe in the years ahead.

      Having said this, I try to be optimistic about the audiophile world because I see it as being the first technological hobby to have reached maturity, gone through generations of touchy-feely pseudoscience nonsense and think it's ripe for those who still remain as hobbyists to find pleasure in honesty, truth, and to understanding the technology without need to be impressed by flowery words or impossible promises.

      I'm sure there will always be schemers and shysters. But over time, hopefully even they will realize there's just not much new money to be had here and move on. To do that, it would be nice to see audiophiles be better educated and demand en bloc some semblance of accountability by the media (so-called "journalists") and companies who claim this and that.

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  2. Thank you for this interesting read. Add to this 2 ingredients: 1]positive bias and 2] peer pressure, soon a fact finding mission becomes intertwined with emotion and culture.
    I can't discount however that a fact can be 'discovered' by a non-scientist also. The scientist is then qualified to test the validity of same using accepted standards. As to whether these standards are 1] rigid enough 2] high enough and 3] globally accepted then, in a circuituous way, brings us back to 'watching the watchers'. We shall all suffer the consequences if we apathetically follow the edict from that famous Greek philosopher Mediocretes 'Eh, good enough'.
    Feel free to take apart my hastily scribbled thoughts.

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    1. Well said "Unknown".

      Good point about the "fact finding mission" ending up in the murky depths of "emotion and culture". When so much of the audiophile bandwidth consists of those emotions and cultural elements, sometimes with proponents pretending to be factual and science-based (here's looking at you Synergistic "Research", et al.), it's just plain ugly for the person who's just getting involved in this hobby.

      Feel free to let us know what other words of wisdom the esteemed Mediocretes said. ;-)

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  3. At first I thought "Wow, Arch has gone savage! He's found his tolerance limit, taking no prisoners!"

    Then I realized it was a guest writer ;-)

    Good article.

    I've been fascinated by psuedo-science and fringe beliefs for a long time (and have followed the skeptical literature on such claims).

    As someone who is passionate about high end audio, it's always been deeply disappointing to me to constantly recognize many of the same shibboleths and red flags of pseudo-scientific and woo-woo reasoning in our hobby.



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    1. LOL Vaal,
      I think I passed my "savage" point just before starting this blog years ago with forum battles and stuff like that!

      Either it was time to leave the hobby or regain some composure and just say a thing or two about the silliness all around without looking too angry. ;-)

      Of course, this should not stop folks like Dr. Gnu from being honest!

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    2. One more thing along these lines, on a personal note.

      Speaking of "savage", I remember years ago on forums getting angry in discussions and "wars". These days, I really can't be bothered to engage in those kinds of heated debates any more. When two parties argue about whether one can "hear" the difference between otherwise decent quality $50 vs. $5000 power cables, neither having any evidence to show anything, it's rather silly! The obvious answer is of course there's no difference objectively. But hey, if someone still claims it has value to them, then by all means, let him pay the price and eat the cake. ;-)

      To counter the "faithful", sometimes one needs to draw from that sense of having a "personal mission" as well; for me this is the attempt to act and speak as a "rational audiophile". That desire has culminated in this blog with the hopes that over time, audiophiles will find the results interesting and might affect their own "faith" in this hobby and form an opinion about the different players.

      As you no doubt have seen in my articles, the ones I feel have damaged the hobby are those who write for the media as if with authority, and the companies that promote falsehoods damaging the reputation of the hobby and without respect for the audience/consumer. I see our fellow audiophiles as having been immersed in the sea of nonsense over generations now...

      As such, I think the phrase "compassionate rehabilitation" is a better way for me to approach those who deeply hold unusual beliefs rather than getting upset or opening up yet another battle front!

      God knows, we have enough battle fronts in this world these days.

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  4. Very well written T.S. Cheers, and thanks for sharing!

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  5. I think the quid is:You can NOT expect from a journalist or an author to follow (or even to know) about scientific research approaches for what ever they are examing or telling. If they are NOT scientists, strictly speaking, they can only "blurb". Simple as it is. It is up to each individual to put what he reads in the proper context. BTW: According to Karl Popper, which was mentioned on this blog a few weeks ago, you can NOT expect from anyone to prove what ever he is affirming, as far as it remains falsifiable. In science one truth is the truth un til another truth takes over. Thats science, too. I welcome these kind of comments anyway!!!!

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    1. Ahhh... Greetings Read H.,
      I don't think the expectation is for "journalists" (like say Stereophile) or writers (whether it be YouTube or blog authors) to "prove" anything per se (although I do take it on myself to show you what I find).

      The job is to have journalists and writers be educated enough in the "audiophile" technology to be curious enough to question those things which are not widely recognized as scientific realities. This should not be difficult in the audio world because already the principles from which products are designed are themselves science/engineering; there was never any voodoo evoked here.

      The claims of Synergistic Research products having significant effect on sound quality can actually be quite easily falsified IMO. I was reminded the other day by a reader that they're even selling nonsense like the "Carbon Tuning Discs" for $200 which I'm sure can be applied and proven to have zero effect on amplifier outputs and DACs for example.

      The issue is that the "cultists" will not accept this fact and "journalists" refuse to just come out and say so in audiophile magazines, or at the very least be reasonably skeptical and hold the company accountable to showing evidence.

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  6. I saw the headline and I was "hooked" as they say. This is going to be a fantastic polemic. I wasn't disappointed.

    Geek: Star Trek Next generation season 3 episode 4 is called " Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" One of the best episodes of the series if I do say so myself. I did not study Latin but I love to use the expressions.

    Since I discovered your website I devoured everything on it including the wonderful photography (also a hobby of mine) I'm not considering myself an audiophile. as the saying goes “Audiophiles don’t listen to music. They only like to listen to their gear.” I agree. I'm a Music lover first but I also have to admit that audio (and other tech) gear is catnip to my inner nerd. Mea Culpa.

    I want music to sound good (transparent) but I'm not really obsessed with it. Okay, that's a lie. But gear alone isn't everything. It's complicated. You have to deal with the acoustics of your room, psychoacoustics, etc etc etc

    I'm also blessed with some knowledge of human psychology and o boy are we screwed. Objectivism is hard and takes effort. It's not our default setting.

    I recently bought an E1DA Cosmos ADC because I was lit by your enthusiasm. And now I want a Victor's Oscillator :( I don't think it's really necessary but for science sacrifices have to be made. :)

    I did some preliminary tests on my Topping D10S (unbalanced. I wanted the spdif output and I use it mainly as a DAC to feed my, also from Topping, L30 headphone amplifier. I only use a balanced audio interface to feed my active monitors. I have a bunch of (mini) pcs and I'm also a big computer nerd so...but I digress..

    The results were satisfactory. SINAD 110 dB. (good enough for me!) This is consistent with your results and that of audiosciencereview give or take a few Db. My test method is probably wrong. I'm not an expert (yet) on measurements. I just dabble...

    Trust but verify. Nah. I just love to do this stuff. Thank you Archimago for your wonderful blog. It's a beacon of hope for me in these trying times.

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    1. Greetings FastFreddy,
      Awesome man!

      Glad you're having fun with the equipment and doing your own measurements as well. Nothing better than getting one's "hands dirty", seeing (and in the process listening as well) to the differences between devices with objective knowledge to go with the experience of perception.

      My belief is that few self-professed audiophiles actually have this kind of experience which is way more powerful than those who somehow feel that "serial upgrading" with endless numbers of products actually mean anything; never appreciating whether their preferences even correlate to true "fidelity". That's my perception of what subjective-only reviewers are like (BTW, I have actually met a few well known ones over the years, but never introduced myself as "Archimago" of course ;-).

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  7. A good article would be Top 10 Audio Myths -debunked. Take some of the things 'everyone' knows is true and show why the science proves they are not. For example amplifier topology, ever notice how class A designs are always referred as 'pure class A' as if class D, H etc designs were inferior? Or the 'first watt' idea that a flea watt amp sounds better because it's first watt is better, or the whole tube thing, or the idea that analog sound is more 'realistic' than digital files. Or the idea that components have to be 'burnt in' to sound right or the 1/3 total price to be spent on interconnects etc etc

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    ReplyDelete