Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The fox and the hedgehog

The following text summarizes a seminar given by Philip Tetlock titled “Why Foxes Are Better Forecasters Than Hedgehogs.”
“What is it about politics that makes people so dumb?”

From his perspective as a pyschology researcher, Philip Tetlock watched political advisors on the left and the right make bizarre rationalizations about their wrong predictions at the time of the rise of Gorbachev in the 1980s and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. Liberals were sure that Reagan was a dangerous idiot; conservatives were sure that the USSR was permanent. The whole exercise struck Tetlock as what used to be called an “outcome-irrelevant learning structure.” No feedback, no correction.

Tetlock's summary: “Partisans across the opinion spectrum are vulnerable to occasional bouts of ideologically induced insanity.” He determined to figure out a way to keep score on expert political forecasts, even though it is a notoriously subjective domain (compared to, say, medical advice), and “there are no control groups in history.”

So Tetlock took advantage of getting tenure to start a long-term research project now 18 years old to examine in detail the outcomes of expert political forecasts about international affairs. He studied the aggregate accuracy of 284 experts making 28,000 forecasts, looking for pattern in their comparative success rates. Most of the findings were negative — conservatives did no better or worse than liberals; optimists did no better or worse than pessimists. Only one pattern emerged consistently.
“How you think matters more than what you think.” 
It’s a matter of judgement style, first expressed by the ancient Greek warrior poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one great thing.” The idea was later expanded by essayist Isaiah Berlin. In Tetlock’s interpretation, Hedgehogs have one grand theory (Marxist, Libertarian, whatever) which they are happy to extend into many domains, relishing its parsimony, and expressing their views with great confidence. Foxes, on the other hand are skeptical about grand theories, diffident in their forecasts, and ready to adjust their ideas based on actual events.
Bottom line… The political expert who bores you with a 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.

And to improve the quality of your own predictions, keep brutally honest score. Enjoy being wrong, admitting to it and learning from it, as much as you enjoy being right.

~ by Stewart Brand
I came across the link by way of a climate-change related post on The Stone, the New York Times philosophy blog. This entry pertained to the nature of "expert consensus" vis-à-vis democracy constituted by "the ignorant many." The argument proffered by our NYT blogger: laypeople, per their non-expert status, have no basis to refute the conclusions of experts (climate scientists in this case, and their view that human activities are warming the planet).

The logic supporting this argument was anemic, relying heavily on the premises of trustworthiness in expert consensus and ineptitude or irrational bias of laypeople. I won't debate the broad veracity of the latter premise, but the former - that expert opinions are reliable - is empirically specious. Any number of historical examples, e.g. as recently as the 1970s climate scientists were predicting an ice-age, weightily refutes this.

Real peril occurs, I believe, on the political level. Regardless of if, when or why experts are incorrect, power-hungry idealogues will always be willing to exploit fear for their own ends. On this, one commentator responding to the NYT article wrote:
Since the beginning of time, high priests and other "experts" have predicted apocalypse for their societies - and increased their standing and power in society by purporting to provide a cure. These predictions of apocalypse all have one thing in common: they are always wrong.
So when I see Al Gore on television advocating a rush to large-scale political action to combat the eminent demise of our planet due to human-generated climate change, I am compelled to roll my eyes. Monolithic thinking dominates the American political landscape (the childish absurdity of the current debt-ceiling debate* punctuates this), and the vision of a free society comprised of and legitimately governed by well-informed citizens is fading. Perhaps my roll-of-the-eyes is better seen as a heavenward plea on behalf of the foxes.

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*Incidentally, I recently read an article that quoted market master billionaire investor Warren Buffett's quick-fix plan for the budget deficit:
I could end the deficit in five minutes. You just pass a law that says that any time there's a deficit of more than three percent of GDP, all sitting members of Congress are ineligible for re-election. Now you've got the incentives in the right place, right?

It's capable of being done. And they're trying to use the incentive now that we're going to blow your brains out, America, in terms of your debt-worthiness over time. That's being used as a threat. A more effective threat would be just to say, "If you guys can't get it done, we'll get some other guys to get it done."

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