Revenge of the Foxes

I was recently reading a book by Nate Silver, “The Signal and the Noise,” and there’s one section of the book that really struck me. Foxes & Hedgehogs. They denote the 2 broadly different personality types that people tend to have.

One the one hand, you have hedgehogs who:

  1. See the world from the vantage point of a single discipline & perspective
  2. Dogmatically stick to their beliefs & opinions, regardless of how well it works out
  3. Ignore empirical data if it contradicts their beliefs
  4. Give excuses to cover up mistakes & deflect blame
  5. Make grand & bold predictions, which they are absolutely sure of

In polar contrast to hedgehogs, foxes tend to:

  1. Incorporate ideas, concepts & learnings from different disciplines
  2. Adapt their mindset & approach if things aren’t working, or they find a better one
  3. Rely on empirical data to verify theory & beliefs
  4. Willingly acknowledge mistakes made by self and accept blame
  5. Accept that real-world complexities can foil predictions and best attempts
  6. Express predictions in probabilistic terms, and qualify them with the assumptions made

Studies have shown that foxes tend to be much better at forecasting the future than hedgehogs. They should be the ones that we should be listening to for advice & wisdom.

Unfortunately, this is rarely what we see in the world. Especially in the realm of political pundits. One problem is that they are rarely ever held accountable for their predictions. With the exception of a few professors doing academic research, no one ever keeps track of the predictions made by a pundit & whether they have come true. Because of this, wisdom & predictive ability often get overlooked by other factors such as charisma, physical appearance & glib talking. All of which makes for great TV, but horrible informational value.

A second & even more insidious problem, is that the very qualities that make foxes good forecasters, also allows them to be drowned out by hedgehogs. The fourth bullet point above, acknowledging mistakes made, is excellent as far as improving upon oneself, but can also undermine one’s credibility to an external observer. In contrast, a hedgehog who never accepts blame might appear to an uninformed outsider, as the more credible person. The fifth & sixth bullet points above, make the foxes’ predictions seem less certain & valuable. After all, even the forecaster doesn’t seem all that confident about them. In contrast, a hedgehog’s predictions might seem to carry more weight, because the forecaster is standing behind it so strongly & confidently.

This can be a problem, not just in political punditry, but all walks of life. People who think & speak like foxes would make for better leaders & advisors. And yet, in a world of noise, they can often get drowned out by the hedgehogs. In order to solve this problem, it has to be attacked in 3 ways:

As someone deciding who to listen to, we have to train ourselves to be wary of hedgehogs, and to appreciate the nuanced approach given by the foxes. This may go against our intuition initially, hence why we have to consciously train ourselves to do so.

As a fox, it’s not enough to admit to the shortcomings in our own character & advice. We have to warn people against listening to those who give overly simplistic advice as well. It’s not enough to say that we don’t know for sure what will happen next. We have to point out the folly of those who claim that they do know for sure. The foxes are doing an admirable job of taking themselves off the pedestal, but they also need to knock down anyone who tries to put themselves undeservedly up there as well.

As someone who gets to shape the system (eg, newspaper editors), we need to create an environment of accountability & meritocracy. Instead of allowing people to coast by on their biases, an approach that will favor the hedgehogs, we need to create processes that will identify those with ability, and filter out those who don’t. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, empirical data is the best way to fight against human biases & snake oil salesmen, and accountability is the best way to weed out those lacking in ability.

Unfortunately, the playing field is stacked against the foxes, which is a shame because they are the ones most worth listening to. Only through active intervention can foxes be put back into the spotlight that they deserve.

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