Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Hedgehog and the Fox

Psychologists have long known that expert predications are not necessarily the most likely to be true. Philip Tetlock invokes the fable of the hedgehog and the fox in his new book, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?. He describes the characteristics of predictors in a longitudinal study where subjects were asked to make predictions of political events, then followed up for 20 years:

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.

I think this finding has implications in every field. Prediction is everyone's business, but surprisingly little work on the topic has been made widely available. The Western scientific method of reductionism is very effective at identifying genes and proteins, but it is "ad hocery" that allowed Crick and Watts to predict that nucleic acids would form a double helix encoding the genetic code. Businesspeople with MBAs know a lot about what they studied, but having an MBA does not predict business success over time.

The temptation to overvalue facts and concepts relating to your own area of expertise is overwhelming, which is why training to be an expert makes poor training for business or poltics. The difference is the ability to operate on the appropriate scale of system hierarchy. While a cell biologist would have much more understanding of programmed cell death than a clinical neurologist, you wouldn't want him treating your Parkinson disease. Similarly, an academic expert on Russia would not necessarily be the best person to be the ambassador to the UN, or even to Russia, since he is too attached to his own theories and less likely to think flexibly about national politics and international relations.

The problem arising is how these findings feed into American anti-intellectualism. But there is a difference between allowing technocrats to become surrogate decision makers, and using them effectively to gather and synthesize data in the service of decision makers. Losing the resource of specialist insight through the intellectual laziness of policymakers or public mistrust would be a great mistake.

Hat tip Centrist Coalition


At 8:06 AM, Anonymous Paul said...

I have always been somewhat sceptical od so called "experts". Often they do not match the hype .


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