Foxes vs. Hedgehogs

A certain aspect of Mr. Kristof’s New York Times article dated 3/26/09 , “Learning How To Think”  really caught my attention. 

In the article he provides results from research conducted by Philip Tetlock, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. The research is conducted on Expert Opinion provided by Experts and its accuracy. Dr. Tetlock  tracked 82,000 predictions by 284 experts over two decades. The experts’ forecasts were tracked both on the subjects of their specialties and on subjects that they knew little about.

The result? It appears the experts were, on average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses! More confounding, it made no difference what their education level or experience level was.

Next, to quote from the article:

 “Indeed, the only consistent predictor was fame — and it was an inverse relationship. The more famous experts did worse than unknown ones. That had to do with a fault in the media. Talent bookers for television shows and reporters tended to call up experts who provided strong, coherent points of view, who saw things in blacks and whites.  People who shouted — like, yes, Jim Cramer! “

I consider it important to interject a note here: Mr. Kristof and Dr. Tetlock seem to be soley focused on opinionators in the media and the opinions they aired in public. However, the way the column is written it is misleading since it seems to undermine all expert opinion. That is not the point I agree with or I am focused on.

I am more interested in creating more foxes vs. hedgehogs, you will soon see what I mean.

Quoting the paragraphs that are most important for the purposes of this post:

 “Mr. Tetlock called experts such as these the “hedgehogs,” after a famous distinction by the late Sir Isaiah Berlin (my favorite philosopher) between hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs tend to have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning, strong convictions; foxes are more cautious, more centrist, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, more prone to self-doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance. And it turns out that while foxes don’t give great sound-bites, they are far more likely to get things right.

This was the distinction that mattered most among the forecasters, not whether they had expertise. Over all, the foxes did significantly better, both in areas they knew well and in areas they didn’t. “

This I believe in. 

Mr. Kristof ends his column (not quoted here) by talking about putting a system in place that measures the success ratio of experts that are paraded out in the media. While important, I think he missed the opportunity to make a more fundamental point: How do we train people to be more like foxes than hedgehogs?

It obviously starts in school and in my opinion should start in middle school. The current education system is too focused on cramming information and training students to think within strict boundaries of a subject.

The ancient Greeks considered the teaching of logic and the need for logical thinking critical, however, somehow we in modern times do not consider it important enough to explicitly drive the point home to our students.

If we have to turn out more foxes, they have to be taught to be so. Their self-confidence should not be based on an absolute foundation but an adjustable one, one that they form and re-form without worrying about it caving from underneath them.

To be sure, certain critical, complex and nuanced thinking training is imparted during higher education.  However, the reason I mention Middle School as the ideal place to begin such thinking is multi-fold:

1. Allows strong basic learning is imparted up to that point so the mind is ready for nuanced thinking and High School will be too late.

2. Not everyone goes to College, especially given the drop out rate in current times. So if not trained in middle school they will never be trained to think correctly.

3. I also believe if taught to think correctly, with a carefully structured program, it is possible to reduce the drop out rate. The courses will be more interesting and engaging and the importance of education can be driven home more directly as oppose to the current model where students cannot draw any connection between their lives and memorizing history, geography, etc. 

I believe it is of paramount importance to have more thoughtful, considerate and flexible thinkers in the world as oppose to rigid and cock-sure people. The decisions made then will reflect more truth, consideration, compassion, nuance and centrism as oppose to falsification of facts, ego, fundamentalism and lack of care.

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3 Responses

  1. The elephant in the room that goes unmentioned is that the “Experts” are not there for their expertise or even “their agenda” but for the agenda of those running the program.

    Under those conditions the point is not to impart awareness but to elicit a favored response at the moment. If the point is to launch a war then predictions of happy thankful natives and secret evil projects will be in abundance and those who predict the nightmare will be a lot less famous as few will report their findings.

    If you remove the pure propaganda from the list of predictions I would guess that the accuracy ratings of the other predictions would be remarkably better.

  2. As a well-trained fox, I appreciate the support for “thoughtful, well-trained, considerate people” who reflect “more truth, consideration, compassion, nuance, and centrism.”

    • “Education” is a hydra-headed problem – even to conceptualize. There are so many different issues and categories to address I find it hard to keep track of them all. In any case, the U.S. isn’t doing well enough for the 21st century in any category of education.

      Just a few examples: How best to teach in Elementary education? How to both inspire students and present material they need to learn? The pre-K and Kindergarten experience. Is Middle School necessary? How to track kids in high schools? How many tracks? How to change tracks? How to equalize grading/scoring to be more meaningful? What tests are most useful? How to set higher standards of retention? How to use time better in every school, every day? What should schools stop doing to better leverage resources?

      How to finance a district without annual pleas to the legislature, budget cuts, layoffs, job changes, and the tidal wave of endless uncertainty that flows through every employee of the system? Why should High School be 4 years; why not 3? Why are colleges so hugely expensive? What do parents and students get for all the college expense? What doesn’t get learned when a kid gets an undergraduate major in “business”? At every level of learning, how to best generate creative skill, personal inspiration, analytic skill and expanding knowledge?

      If less kids pursue an academic track through university – instead going to job-prep community or technical colleges (a good idea) – what is the resulting cost of enhanced social stratification? Why do we Americans insist that schools take on so many parenting and social functions that educational content has to compete for time and attention?

      I’m certain readers will be able to add another 100 issues to this list. Please do.

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