The Hedgehog and the Fox: Isaiah Berlin and Philip Tetlock

When I first read Isaiah Berlin’s Essay ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox in about 1970 it started a process of ensuring I was not to become a hedgehog. Berlin argued that the fox-hedgehog distinction captured:

‘one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, more or less coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel…and on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated, and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way…related to no moral or aesthetic principle. These last lead lives, perform acts and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripedal; their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing…inner vision. The first kind of intellectual belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, ….Dante belongs to the first category and Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoyevsky, Nietzche, Ibsen, and Proust are in varying degrees hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Moliere, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac and Joyce are foxes.

I am reading Philip Tetlock’s marvelous book ‘Expert Political Judgment: How Good is It? How Can We Know?’ which studies the forecasting abilities of political experts, our famous pundits and in the main they are bloody useless. The most confident, most widely seen or heard in the media are the worst, especially if they are both hedgehogs with one all encompassing view of the world and extremists. Indeed such folk actually get worse in forecasting political futures the more expertise they have and the longer the time frame they try to forecast…relative to simple algorithms, random choices with a dart, and of course foxes. The latter do better if they are moderates and of course, they do even better if their foxiness consists of lots of different models that they make explicit and use flexibly…..If you read him, I guarantee you will not watch a TV pundit the same way again….how few of their forecasts, stated so arrogantly, supported by arguments and data, come to fruition….Yet we are addicted to the idea that the future is forecast-able and frightened by how random it is. The Oracle at Delphi has its modern equivalents every night on TV…

Wikipedia summarizes his book:

His Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (2005) describes a twenty-year study in which 284 experts in many fields, from professors to journalists, and with many opinions, from Marxists to free-marketeers, were asked to make 28,000 predictions[1][2] about the future, finding that they were only slightly more accurate than chance, and worse than basic computer algorithms. Forecasters with the biggest news media profiles were especially bad. The study also compared the records of “foxes” and “hedgehogs” (two personality types identified in The Hedgehog and the Fox).  Tetlock’s conclusion about expert opinion is that statistics when properly used are more reliable than human judgment in every sphere of activity.

This blog is dedicated to foxes and the hope we can teach some old hedgehogs new tricks….

And of course, this blog also believes that the world is divided into two fundamental types of people: those who think the world is divided into two types of people, and those who think it is more complex…. 🙂 And it also believes Fox News should change its name to Hedgehog News….

This is Philip. See also:

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Academic Conflict, Conflict Book Reviews, Conflict Processes, Philosophy of Conflict, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Hedgehog and the Fox: Isaiah Berlin and Philip Tetlock

  1. Silverman says:

    I am talking a little about I. Berlin and his hedgehog-fox thesis here.

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