Hedgehogs and Foxes in the Washington Post

From an op-ed column by David Epstein, author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, in the Washington Post—a newspaper in which most of its many columnists (and almost all commentators on television) are hedgehogs.

Tetlock gave the forecasters nicknames, borrowed from a well-known philosophy essay: the narrow-view hedgehogs, who “know one big thing” (and are terrible forecasters), and the broad-minded foxes, who “know many little things” (and make better predictions). The latter group’s hunt for information was a bit like a real fox’s hunt for prey: They roam freely, listen carefully and consume omnivorously.

Eventually, Tetlock and his collaborator, Barbara Mellers, assembled a team of foxy volunteers, drawn from the general public, to compete in a forecasting tournament. Their volunteers trounced a group of intelligence analysts who had access to classified information. As Tetlock observed of the best forecasters, it is not what they think but how they think. They argue differently; foxes frequently used the word “however” in assessing ideas, while hedgehogs tended toward “moreover.” Foxes also looked far beyond the bounds of the problem at hand for clues from other, similar situations.

A reasonable conclusion is that curiosity — and a broad range of knowledge — might be a kind of superpower. Hedgehog experts have more than enough knowledge about the minutiae of an issue in their specialty to cherry-pick details to fit preconceived notions. Their deep knowledge works against them. More skillful forecasters depart from a problem to consider completely unrelated events with structural commonalities — the “outside view.” It is their breadth, not their depth, that scaffolds their skill.

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