Tuesday, December 06, 2005

they no know, either

A while ago I blogged about how I didn't know anything.

It's a particularly pressing question for me because I'm generally expected to 'know' stuff and, worse of all, to make predictions about what will happen next. It's all seen as being somehow glamorous and exciting but I don't like doing it, to be honest. I sometimes succumb to the temptation and make bold, sweeping judgments about things, and then find that I feel tawdry and arrogant. And then I'll meet someone who's making bold statements themselves and I'll dislike them for their hubris and their insouciance.

Fortunately, it turns out that I'm not the only one. Tetlock, whose academic paper on why political 'experts' tend to have worse judgment than complete ingenues inspired my last post, has just published a book going into more detail. The New Yorker has a great review of it.

Here's the bit I find particularly heartening:

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."

As an admitted intellectual butterfly, the idea that flitting from idea to idea is a strength rather than a weakness is heartening - as is the idea that intellectual humility makes for better analysis. It helps me remember that being a know-it-all is bad thing in more ways that one.


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