Speculist on Tetlock on “Why Politics Makes People Dumb”

It’s a race between the Foxes, who know many things, and the Hedgehogs, who know “one important thing.”  Of course, the problem is that foxes are terrible at long-range analysis, and Hedgehogs frequently know one WRONG thing.

And the Hedgehogs seem to predominate.  For example, as one commenter provides, the political liberal who sees everything military through one particular view of the Vietnam War.  Or, on the conservative side, the dude who sees a black helicopter behind each and every new use of federal power.  (Yes, I know: currently, the liberals are showcasing, rather than being embarrassed by, their nutjobs.  This is a temporary phenomenon suggesting that there’s a move afoot for a political realignment.)

It’s not simply one’s “lens,” or inherent bias, but how one derives one’s worldview as well.

The trick, of course, is to be a “fodgehog,” constantly DERIVING (not “supporting!”  Bad!  That’s hedgehog thinking!) one’s big notions via an array of widely-collected facts.

Which raises another question:  is that my bias as a particular kind of historian speaking?  I have an excellent predictive track record (to the point that I tend to be the go-to guy for folks trying to make sense of things).  But the “fodgehog” idea suggests a strong methodological bias towards synthesis.  As my twin can vouch, synthesis is really good for what I do… not so good for learning calculus.

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  1. Alex

     /  February 14, 2007

    I think the line from Tetlock says it all:
    “Bottom line… The political expert who bores you with an cloud of “howevers” is probably right about what’s going to happen. The charismatic expert who exudes confidence and has a great story to tell is probably wrong.”

    George Carlin had a great line in his stand-up routine about 10 years ago which I find is still true. Listen to someone carefully and most of the time, without fail, you’ll be able to say “Aha! He’s full of shit!”

    There is another great line from Spongebob Squarepants where one of the characters says “Sometimes you say things really loud so that people will think you’re smart and good at what you do” to which point the local evil genius, Plankton, bellowed out loudly “CORRECT!”

    Since politics is the game of convincing others that you’re right and that your interests are equal to or better than theirs – the charismatic ones play the game best but aren’t necessarily idiots. They’re just putting more effort into getting that one thing really right to serve their needs than making sure that what they’re proposing is correct. It’s more selfishness than stupidity. So those that speak loudly and convincingly about one topic are just more motivated to get their point across than the “foxes” who want to look at every angle.

    Therefore – the ultimate in leadership or being really dangerous is to be someone who borrows from everything but can speak convincingly about all of them when needed. It’s not quite a “Fodgehog” as you describe, but rather the perfect blending of a synthesist, an analyst, and a demagogue.

  2. Convivialdingo

     /  February 14, 2007

    Why limit this to Politics? I find more and more that my fast-held constraints from 10 years ago are incorrect or misleading.

    I analyze problems according to checks, or more properly as known restraints – simular to terminal velocities or physics constants. What I see happening is that, socially & politically, these restraints seem solid in the short term but rather elastic in the long term.

    Even in my world of information tech I’ve seen these restraints broken over and over – and it’s fascinating to see what the tradeoffs are.

    And to follow the analogy – even foxes become dogmatic. “I won’t eat one of those again” is a common phrase in fox camps.

  3. happycrow

     /  February 14, 2007

    Yep. The avoidance of dogmatism seems to be key.

  4. “The important thing is that you approach current events with a few limited principles that you want to use to explain what you see. Foxes, on the other hand, take a scattered approach, bringing a lot of different principles into play.”

    Once again, Libertarians are lumped into groups that they have a limited agreement with. Not a new phenomina, but a tired one. The modern conservative (a fox here?) sees the LP as being unwilling to engage other countries along the lines of the Bush doctrine, and are therefore the same thing as a Marxist. But the modern conservative is willing to continue to grow the federal government in ways that Reagan would have objected to in the strongest terms. Is it really a myopic view to keep the federal government limited? Is that what makes a hedgehog?

    It is interesting to me that a huge volume of what made Reagan a president is what the LP is asking for now. To state that the content of a political view is meaningless is simply a statement of cynicism. The irony of this is, of course, that “reality is not a horse race between the two viewpoints.” That has been the long-standing view of the LP since its inception, a view held also by many intelligent Democrats and Republicans that I have known throughout my life.

    I posit this: Politicians in general have the need for people to believe along a “hedgehog” line of beliefs…namely, those that fit their platform. Can anyone name a single successful politician that has not had his/her particular set of ideas? Thus the problem with this thesis: “foxes” do not win elections. What we really have are competing groups of hedgehogs trying to win the hearts of all hedgehogs. Some of the hedgehogs may dream that they are the “true thinkers” and have thus become a fox, but, ask that “fox” what they believe should happen. You will uncover a hedgehog that knows what the answers are.

  5. I think you’re off base. The fox & hedgehog thing may be true, but politics is simply about who you can sucker into voting for you. By choosing a particular lens to argue from, they’re pandering to people with a particular axe to grind “Cheney is the Anti-Christ”, “Bush is an Idiot”, “Clinton wants all your children to grow up gay”, etc.

    Check out any “lens”, and 9 out of 10 times it’s the passcode for the kind of righteous “my people”-ism that wins elections.

  6. Politics is complex. In *electoral* politics, you’re right, Jim. In predictive foreign-policy, otoh…. I think you’re context-erroring.

  7. Ahmen to that. Politics is not an easy topic at all.

  8. HC: based on your text, explain the difference?

    The guy who thinks any military conflict is automatically a re-run of Vietnam may be a sucker, but he’s also likely to be within the political mainstream for his peer group. This means that his opinions is an asset to him with marginal social utility. It also means he’s an asset to his local politician if he’s from somewhere like where I live.

    Your “bias” as a historian stems from the fact that you have no constituency that you’re trying to retain. “Spinning on a dime” equates to “abandoning one’s supporters”, “selling out”, “abandoning one’s principles”, etc. Honestly, who do you think eventually writes the checks for all those think-tanks? I’ll wager the proverbial “dollar to a doughnut” that the bigger checks that come from people with interests to be served ( ___ National Committee, &c) far outweigh the little checks from people who’re just generally interested. Fox vs. Hedgehog is just a matter of rhetorical flavor.


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