Insight. Antics.

You’re Smarter Than the Experts.

In Politics on April 7, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Does being an expert matter?  Or having 15+ years of experience in something?  Nicholas D. Kristof’s recent piece in the NY Times says no.

His column didn’t get much attention, either because it wasn’t written by Paul Krugman, Thomas Friedman, or Maureen Dowd (honorable mention: David Brooks), or because it wasn’t a reactive commentary on the week’s political events.  Yet, it may reveal more about the core of political and ideological persuasion than any issue or event can.

It explains that the people with the most expertise, biggest microphones, and most emotional pleas are correct in their predictions very infrequently.  It’s based on the research of Philip Tetlock, a Berkeley professor who did what Jon Stewart did to Jim Cramer, except for 18 years and with almost 300 people:

“[His book is based on] two decades of tracking some 82,000 predictions by 284 experts. The experts’ forecasts were tracked both on the subjects of their specialties and on subjects that they knew little about.

The result? The predictions of experts were, on average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses — the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board.”

‘It made virtually no difference whether participants had doctorates, whether they were economists, political scientists, journalists or historians, whether they had policy experience or access to classified information, or whether they had logged many or few years of experience.’ ”

So, basically, they’re no better than you or I.  And, “Conservatives did no better or worse than liberals; optimists did no better or worse than pessimists.”  (Hey Larry Kudlow, Chris Matthews, Sean Hannity: bring it!)  The bottom line according to Tetlock: how you think matters more than what you think.

Tetlock breaks up thinkers into two groups: foxes and hedgehogs.  The root of the difference in the terms emanates from a Greek poem: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  (Note to self: refrain from lame Sonic jokes.  But Sega must have known something…)

Red Tailed Fox - PA Gaming Commission

Foxes are “self-critical, eclectic thinkers who were willing to update their beliefs when faced with contrary evidence” and “were rather modest about their predictive ability.”  They’re also more centrist, pragmatic, prone to self-doubt, and inclined to see complexity and nuance, as Tetlock and Kristof describe them.


Hedgehogs - Mature Times UK

Hedgehogs were worse forecasters: “They tended to have one big, beautiful idea that they loved to stretch, sometimes to the breaking point. They tended to be articulate and very persuasive as to why their idea explained everything.”

A practical takeaway from Tetlock is that” the media often loves hedgehogs” and you can get a hint whether you are listening to a fox or hedgehog by counting “how often they press the brakes on trains of thought. Foxes often qualify their arguments with ‘however’ and ‘perhaps,’ while hedgehogs build up momentum with ‘moreover’ and ‘all the more so.’ ”

This theory has the potential to have a big impact on political discourse if it makes the rounds.  If the experts can be wrong, the rest of us can be right.

Don’t get me wrong, we need experts, we need people who are willing, devoted, and intelligent enough to learn about and investigate things that the rest of us simply aren’t doing.  And their findings and insights are vital in informing our knowledge.  But from there, once a person has a reached a certain level, judgment trumps expertise.  I hope to strike a nice balance in the posts ahead.

  1. Here’s a fox or hedgehog quiz if you’re interested. I got a 25, which puts me right in the sweet spot of fox territory.

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