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Hedgehogs and Foxes

More than a half century ago, philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote a little essay he called The Hedgehog and the Fox. The title is based on a line from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows only one big thing." Berlin used this as an analogy for how different writers and thinkers approach the world. Plato and Dante, for example, were hedgehogs, always keeping within one overarching framework. William Shakespeare, on the other hand, was a fox, exploring many ideas and themes throughout his writing career.

Psychologist Philip Tetlock did not originally have Berlin's essay in mind in the 1980s when he began studying predictions made by political pundits. Tetlock asked the pundits thousands of questions over the course of several years concerning the likelihood of different events happening in the near future. In general, the pundits misssed badly. Of the events they said were certain to happen, about 25% did not; of the things they said could never happen, about 15% did. Overall, Tetlock concluded, the pundits were less accurate than a "dart-throwing chimpanzee."

A primary example was their attitude toward the Soviet Union. In the early 1980s, conservative pundits claimed Ronald Reagan's aggressive stance regarding nuclear warfare would help keep Soviet aggression in check; the Soviets would be afraid to call his bluff because they couldn't be sure he really was bluffing. Liberals claimed Reagan's aggressiveness would simply lead to more aggressiveness on the Soviets' part, and likely a turn toward neo-Stalinist policies.

Then in 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became the President of the Soviet Union. His programs of glasnost and perestroika began a transformation of Soviet life and culture that would culminate six years later with revolution throughout the Soviet Union and ultimately the dissolution of the union. Although none of the pundits had predicted this, most saw the events as confirmation of their own world views. Conservatives argued that Reagan's firm stance forced the Soviets to open up, while liberals claimed the reforms would have happened sooner if it hadn't been for Reagan's hard-line stance. None of them had made these arguments before Gorbachev came to power.

But Tetlock also observed that there was a small group of pundits who admitted they were wrong and changed their outlook based on the new reality. Over time these pundits actually began to perform better than the hypothetical dart-throwing chimp. Intrigued, Tetlock sent a personality survey to all the pundits, trying to tease out what qualities this group shared that the others lacked.

The difference wasn't in their ideology; on the whole, liberals and conservatives alike made poor predictions. Being an optimist or a pessimist, having a PhD or being self-taught gave no advantage. The one clue Tetlock found was the very thing Isaiah Berlin had described decades eariler.

The pundits who made the worst predictions tended to view all events through a single filter. Their world view--regardless of which world view it was--gave them an explanation for everything that happened, and colored not just their perception of the future, but their interpretation of current events. It also gave them, ironically, a high degree of certainty about their predictions.

The pundits who performed relatively well in their forecasts all lacked such an overarching narrative. They tended to see history as a disconnected series of unexpected events, and the future as largely unknowable. The pundits in this group doubted that anyone could make accurate predictions. They were much less likely to label any event a certainty or an impossibility. Their predictions were not consistent from year to year, but changed as circumstances changed, as the pundits received new information about the world.

Tetlock also observed that the pundits who expressed greater certainty about the future got the most invites to political talk shows. Uncertainty may beget greater accuracy, but boldness makes for better sound bites.

 

Thirty years after Tetlock began his study, American politics seems more divided than ever. If our politicians have learned one lesson, it is that the way to get your message out is to hide any hint of uncertainty, to make bold assertions and then to refuse to learn from mistakes. Yet this is the very attitude that leads to making the worst decisions. If there's one arena in which a good dose of moderation is needed, it's politics. I only wish I could foresee a way it could happen.

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