Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Foxes, not Hedgehogs

We are learning from NPR’s recent examination of how tribal loyalty and love of consistency interfere with an unbiased pursuit of truth.

Philip Tetlock, at Pennsylvania's Wharton School, is a psychologist who's studied what voters can expect when they get consistent leaders. He uses the Greek analogy of the fox and the hedgehog. The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. The hedgehog has one goal: don't get eaten. Foxes, on the other hand, have lots of strategies to catch a hedgehog.

Tetlock thinks consistent leaders simplify a complex world into a few big ideas. They're hedgehogs. Leaders who are foxes don't have a single agenda. They have lots of contradictory goals. They compromise. Foxes are less likely to be on the extreme left or the extreme right.

Since consistent hedgehogs and inconsistent foxes both claim great results, Tetlock tested them. He asked a large number of hedgehogs and foxes to make specific predictions about events. Over 20 years, he's collected more than 28,000 predictions about issues in 60 countries. The results are in: foxes make the right calls more often than hedgehogs. If you want to know where the economy is headed, ask a fox.

But hedgehogs have an upside: when they're right, they're spectacularly right. Think of Winston Churchill, who saw before everyone else the threat Hitler posed. But hedgehogs are also more likely to be spectacularly wrong. After all, Churchill also fervently believed in the British Empire--in keeping India British--and very incorrectly compared Gandhi to Hitler.

Tetlock's work shows inconsistent leaders—foxes—do better in office. But because voters so value consistency, hedgehogs do better in election campaigns.

Tetlock’s proofs came well after the great political philosopher Isaiah Berlin published his work The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953). Berlin is a hero of this blog for his insight into the difference between “positive” and “negative liberty;” between government helping others to succeed and government modestly honoring the individual freedom to fail. Berlin believed a hedgehog is an author who has a unified vision which he follows in his writing, while a fox has no central vision nor organizing principle; his writings are varied, even contradictory.

Berlin concentrated his analysis on Leo Tolstoy, whom Berlin argued was a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog. Tolstoy longed for a central idea to organize around, but so distrusted human ability to find such an idea that he ended up knocking down what he saw as faulty. In War and Peace, Tolstoy used chaos, in Berlin’s words, to dispel a "great illusion" that “individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events." Tolstoy perceived a "central tragedy" of human life to be man’s failure to
learn how little the cleverest and most gifted among them can control, how little they can know of all the multitude of factors the orderly movement of which is the history of the world
Consistency, then, equates with outlandish arrogance. We should be modest, foxes not hedgehogs, especially in our desires to control others (“negative" over "positive liberty”). We may want the dopamine surge that comes from the correct prediction. It’s human biology at work. But as Nassim Nicholas Taleb taught us in the Black Swan, we cannot foresee the monumental events (“black swans”) that shape history, so we are better off with foxes “with an open mind” than with hedgehogs “so blinded by one single outcome [they] cannot imagine others.”

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