John W. Dean

Barack Obama Is A "Fox," Not a "Hedgehog," and Thus More Likely To Get It Right

By JOHN W. DEAN
Friday, July 24, 2009

Watching President Obama"s prime-time press conference on health care with a copy of Philip Tetlock"s Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? in my lap made me realize that we truly do have a "fox" in the Oval Office, and that he replaced a "hedgehog." Based on Professor Tetlock"s decades of non-partisan and apolitical testing and analysis, he found that "foxes," in fact, have better political judgment than "hedgehogs" -- a crucial distinction as having such judgment has never been more important for a president. Let me explain.

Expanding The Fox and Hedgehog Metaphor

Sir Isaiah Berlin, political philosopher and historian of ideas, observed in his classic essay "The Fox and the Hedgehog" that a fundamental difference that may divide human thinking is that some people think like foxes, those cunning creatures who know many things, while others think like headstrong hedgehogs, those persistent critters who know one big thing.

Berlin illuminated his metaphor by explaining that hedgehogs "relate everything to a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance." Foxes, on the other hand, "pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, … their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects."

"Without too much fear of contradiction," Berlin added, the group of renowned hedgehogs could include Dante, Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen and Proust; while foxes might include Shakespeare, Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Moliere, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac and Joyce.

With no fear of contradiction, Barack Obama can be described as a fox and George W. Bush as clearly a hedgehog. It is more difficult than I thought to describe all modern American presidents as either foxes or hedgehogs, but labeling FDR, JFK, and Clinton as foxes and LBJ and Reagan as hedgehogs is not likely to be contested. Less clear is how to categorize Truman, Nixon, Carter and Bush I. But Obama and Bush II are prototypical of these labels.

As Berlin noted, however, like "all over-simple classifications of this type, the dichotomy becomes, if pressed, artificial, scholastic and ultimately absurd." Nonetheless, Berlin added that when a metaphor (such as this one) embodies "any degree of truth, it offers a point of view from which to look and compare, a starting point for genuine investigation." Fortunately, this metaphor has recently been given new meaning in the work of Philip Tetlock, who has reported on twenty years of research into fox-and-hedgehog thinking, and provided a wonderful window for viewing American presidents.

Philip Tetlock's Report on Political Judgment

Philip E. Tetlock (now a professor at the School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley) interviewed and re-interviewed 284 men and women with advanced degrees and professional training in law, political science, economics, business, journalism, public policy, and international relations to judge their skill in predicting future political events. Over two decades, he asked and tested responses to basic questions such as: Who will win the presidential election and by how much? Will the GDP increase, decrease, or stay the same? Will defense spending rise, fall, or stay the same? Which nations will likely develop weapons of mass destruction? Where will we go to war? Is the dot.com growth on NASDAQ a bubble and if so, when will it pop? What nations will ratify the Kyoto Protocol to regulate carbon emissions?

Here, I have only suggested a very small sample of the 80,000 expert predictions that Tetlock and his team analyzed for accuracy during their lengthy study to determine whose thinking was the best at predicting and making political judgments: foxes or hedgehogs? Tetlock reported his findings in Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? As one of his peers, Paul Sniderman, pointed out in reviewing his friend's book, its sober findings might obscure its importance because Tetlock found that "[c]himps do nearly as well as experts in forecasting the future; and experts do no better in their area of expertise than dilettantes."

The good news, however, was that foxes have much better political predictive judgment than hedgehogs. Tetlock requested that his prognosticators classify themselves as foxes or hedgehogs by answering relevant questions. For example, fox-like people would find "politics more cloudlike than clocklike" and they would agree with statements such as: "Even after making up my mind, I am always eager to consider different options" or "when considering most conflicts, I can usually see how both sides could be right." Similarly, foxes would disagree with statements like "it is annoying to listen to someone who cannot seem to make up his or her mind" or "I dislike questions that can be answered in many ways." Needless to say, hedgehogs would take the positions nearly opposite those of foxes.

Tetlock, when writing a newspaper column, explained: "Hedgehogs are big-idea thinkers in love with grand theories: libertarianism, Marxism, environmentalism, etc. Their self-confidence can be infectious. They know how to stoke momentum in an argument by multiplying reasons why they are right and others are wrong. That wins them media acclaim. But they don't know when to slam the mental brakes by making concessions to other points of view. They take their theories too seriously. The result: hedgehogs make more mistakes, but they pile up more hits on Google."

Hedgehogs also attract media attention, because they are unequivocal, if not simplistic and bold, which plays well in the media. Accordingly, there is much more hedgehog punditry -- as a spin of the talk radio dials, or a view of cable news, will demonstrate.

Broader Meaning of Tetlock's Findings

Tetlock's scholarship, and the depth of his study, are remarkable. His findings are truly enlightening. While his book was written for other social scientists, or those with training in social science methodologies, he is hopeful that the research tools he has developed will "be of use to professionals in applied fields such as intelligence analysis, risk assessment, and journalism." Not only must we hope that American intelligence agencies ordered several cases of this book, but as British economist John Kay wrote in the Financial Times of London, this is a book for business and commerce as well. Kay nicely sums up the problems with the single-mindedness of the hedgehogs in an essay titled: "The World Needs More Foxes and Fewer Hedgehogs:"

"Mr. Tetlock's analysis is about political judgment but equally relevant to economic and commercial assessments," Kay writes. "Harry Truman famously sought a one-armed economist, who would never say: 'On the one hand, then on the other.' Broadcast media look for snappy sound-bites. Corporate executives demand 'the elevator pitch' for new ideas. Fund managers want specific forecasts. Business audiences do not want to hear that the world is a complex and uncertain place. But, unfortunately, it is. … Political hedgehogs invade Iraq, business hedgehogs go to China and financial hedgehogs hype the new economy. … The cult of the heroic CEO, which invites us to believe all characteristics required for great leadership and good judgment can be found in a few exceptional individuals, flies in the face of psychological research as well as long experience."

In addition to calling attention to the application of Tetlock's work to matters economic and commercial, I would also add that these tools are applicable to the duties of judges and lawyers, although this is not a work likely to be studied by the four hedgehogs currently residing on the U.S. Supreme Court, better known as Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito and Chief Justice Roberts. Hedgehogs, by nature, do not like learning of their hedgehogness. After reading Tetlock's startling material, let us be satisfied that we no longer have a hedgehog in the Oval Office.


John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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