Sunday, December 04, 2005


Via Dan Drezner, this review by Louis Menand of Philip Tetlock's new Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?. He divides "experts" into two categories. Menand writes:
Tetlock uses Isaiah Berlin’s metaphor from Archilochus, from his essay on Tolstoy, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” to illustrate the difference. He says:
Low scorers look like hedgehogs: thinkers who “know one big thing,” aggressively extend the explanatory 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, at least in the long term. High scorers look like foxes: thinkers who know many small things (tricks of their trade), 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.
A hedgehog is a person who sees international affairs to be ultimately determined by a single bottom-line force: balance-of-power considerations, or the clash of civilizations, or globalization and the spread of free markets. A hedgehog is the kind of person who holds a great-man theory of history, according to which the Cold War does not end if there is no Ronald Reagan. Or he or she might adhere to the “actor-dispensability thesis,” according to which Soviet Communism was doomed no matter what. Whatever it is, the big idea, and that idea alone, dictates the probable outcome of events. For the hedgehog, therefore, predictions that fail are only “off on timing,” or are “almost right,” derailed by an unforeseeable accident. There are always little swerves in the short run, but the long run irons them out.

Foxes, on the other hand, don’t see a single determining explanation in history. They tend, Tetlock says, “to see the world as a shifting mixture of self-fulfilling and self-negating prophecies: self-fulfilling ones in which success breeds success, and failure, failure but only up to a point, and then self-negating prophecies kick in as people recognize that things have gone too far.”
I think I'm a hedgehog, by virtue of personality alone. (Isaac can speak for himself but I would venture to say that he is a fox.) I also think that in the past year I've tried to become more of a fox. But it's fun being a hedgehog, you don't have to think about subtleties or nuance, just get out your intellectual nuclear weapon and go crazy. Unfortunately, it's easy to become irrelevant.


Anonymous James said...

That post on Catallarchy about the demonstrations in Hong Kong? That was me, baby. It was quite something to march along with all those people, in a gentle atmosphere of cautious political pressure. And I think that, from my limited but direct experience, Catallarchy poses the Authoritarianism v. Democratic Reform issue a little too harshly...Hong Kong is discussed as if it is part of authoritarian China, but it really isn't - it is a world unto itself. For now, it can do much whatever it likes since Beijing is scared stiff of appearing like what it is, a dictatorship, in the eyes of the world. So, the political situation is a netherworld in which Beijing appoints the governer of Hong Kong, but is very careful to gauge their popularity and act accordingly. So I don't know if that analysis makes me more of a Hedgehog or a Fox, but I, like you, Henry, have been trying to hone my Foxness over my tendency towards grand theories.

PS The instructions for posting are all in Chinese, so I hope this works.

3:40 AM  

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