Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Rise of the Hedgehogs

Remember the Marshall McLuhan scene from Annie Hall? No? Well, here it is:


"Boy, if life were only like this". We rarely get the chance to call people on their opinions. Especially when it comes to opinions about the future. Rather than pulling out Marshall McLuhan from behind the scenery, I sometimes want to pull out a younger version of the person speaking. "Three years ago, you said x would happen but it didn't. Care to justify yourself to yourself?"

One man has got close to doing just this. Philip Tetlock is a US social scientist who asked experts (academics, journalists, policy makers) to make political, social and economic predictions about the future as part of an experiment. What would happen in the Soviet Union? In Europe? In South Africa? And then he waited to see if they were right. He began doing this in the mid-1980s and the results were published in Expert Political Judgment.

He noted a few interesting things:
  • Experts are not that good at predicting complex phenomena. On average, they did better than chance. They did better than university undergraduates. They did not do as well as formal statistical models.
  • Some factors that you might expect would make people better at prediction did not. It didn't matter whether they had a PhD or not. It didn't matter how many years of experience they had. Whether you were male or female didn't matter. It didn't matter whether they had access to classified information. It didn't matter whether they were left wing or right wing ideologically speaking.
  • There was a slight negative correlation between the amount that an expert appeared in the media vs. their predictive performance. So the more that you see someone on TV, the less you should trust them. However this was a weak relationship.
So what did matter then? What makes someone a better predictor of the future than someone else?

So it turns out that it matters how you think about things. Tetlock distinguishes between "foxes" and "hedgehogs". Hedgehogs are:
Thinkers who know "one big thing", aggressively extend the exploratory reach of that one big thing into new domains, display  bristly impatience with those who "do not get it", and express considerable confidence that they are already pretty proficient forecasters.
In contrast, foxes are:
Thinkers know many small things..., are skeptical of grand schemes, see explanation and prediction not as deductive exercises but rather as exercises in flexible "ad hocery" that require stitching together diverse sources of information, and are rather diffident about their own forecasting prowess...
Who does better at prediction? Well, the foxes win here. Not only do the foxes do better at prediction but  they were more likely to change their minds when events did not occur as expected and they less likely to engage in hindsight bias - i.e. misremembering both their own predictions and those of their rivals in a self-serving way.

Some hedgehogs do not view this apparent failure as a bad thing. One think tank resident told Tetlock:
"You play a publish-or-perish game run by the rules of social science... You are under the misapprehension that I play the same game. I don't. I fight to preserve my reputation in a cutthroat adversarial culture. I woo dumb-ass reporters who want glib sound bites."
These findings depress me. They don't depress me because I don't approve of fox-style thinking. I do. They depress me because fox-style thinking feels like it is out of fashion at the moment. Hedgehogs seems to rule the world. The recent behaviour within the US Congress and space given to Trollumnists in the Australian press are two examples. Of course, as a fox, I'm willing to accept that I might be wrong.   What do you think? Are things that bleak? How do we make the world a foxier place?

Source: scpetrel

2 comments:

Keith De La Rue said...

Nice post - from one fox to another...

Mick McWilliams said...

Wow. As a fox currently working in a hedgehog industry I can do nothing less than nod in absolute agreement. Great post!