Nate Silver, statistician, first became noticed in the political world when he correctly guessed the outcome of 49 out of the 50 states in the 2008 presidential election. This year, he topped his election record by predicting outcomes of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Needless to say, his book released in September 2012 about making predictions, The Signal and the Noise, shot up to the bestseller list for nonfiction and was named Amazon.com’s #1 best nonfiction book of 2012.
There are many different areas of life where accurate predictions come in handy: From the housing markets to political outcomes, from the weather to baseball, there are things that we want to be able to predict so we feel better equipped to handle the future.
When you’re listening to experts on the news, what should you be looking for to know for sure that they are a better predictor? How can you think to become a better predictor? Silver cites Philip Tetlock, a psychology professor in the 1980s, for the answer. Tetlock administered surveys asking experts to predict a variety of events between the 1980s and 1990s, and found he could divide these people into two distinct categories: hedgehogs and foxes.
Tetlock received this analogy from the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who received the comparison from the poet Archilochus. The fragment of one of his poems says, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
Hedgehogs are generally the experts you see when you turn on your television. In politics, they’re interesting to watch because they stick with one candidate, even when the polls appear to be saying something different. They believe in big ideas and governing principles, generally using one or a few of these to explain everything that happens in society. Silver uses the examples of “Karl Marx and class struggle, or Sigmund Freud and the unconscious. Or Malcolm Gladwell and the ‘tipping point’” (Silver, 53). While simplistic might not be the accurate term for them, hedgehogs do strive to tie in all of their guiding principles into one large idea, and reject any notion that doesn’t fit into their big idea of the universe. Because of their bias and mindset, they might ignore clues that would lead their predictions to become more accurate.
Foxes, in contrast, don’t get as much air time. They are more able to see complexities and nuances, and believe in a lot of little ideas and using as many approaches as necessary to solve a problem. Isaiah Berlin uses examples like Aristotle, Shakespeare, Balzac, and Joyce as thinkers that use their many and varied experiences to form conclusions, instead of focusing on one big idea. They are more comfortable adjusting their predictions if there is evidence that they should do so. Because of their thought process, they might raise doubt over political candidates and qualify their predictions with a degree of probability. In politics, this means they aren’t as interesting to watch.
Any time you are working to predict the success of something in your day-to-day work, think about how you’re approaching that forecast. Are you using one technique that you have used for years; one that doesn’t allow room for adjustments if it doesn’t work out as planned, or are you willing to try options, leave room for doubt, and adjust as necessary to more accurately foresee an outcome? If you are a fox, the latter will apply.
So, how should you think? Use information instead of ignoring what doesn’t fit into your main idea, change with that information, and make the best forecast you can today, every day. Just remember to stay foxy.