Tl;dr: Tetlock’s “Expert Political Judgment”

Reading Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment

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Tetlock is a cognitive psychologist who got much more famous recently for his great book “Superforecasting”. We read it in my Columbia class.

That book has a great hook: he runs a contest and sees who wins, describing the habits and styles of the winners. People who make predictions about all kinds of crazy stuff correctly, including wars and elections.

This book is earlier. It reads like a revised version of a PhD thesis. Bit wonky. 2004. His writing has improved.

But his ambitions in this book are wild. And they start from a great hook, the line from Archilochus on foxes and hedgehogs.

The book is the deepest treatment of this idea popularized after Isaiah Berlin picked it to lay out some thoughts on Tolstoy vs Dostoevsky (hedgehog).

More foxes: Shakespeare, Aristotle, Herodotus, Montaigne, Erasmus, Goethe, Moliere, Pushkin, Joyce.

More hedgehogs: Plato, Pascal, Hegel, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust.

Proust is such a hedgehog. 12 volumes of one book?

The subject of Tetlock’s work focuses on people evaluating information and making political predictions on war and peace (like Tolstoy’s study of Napoleon, both foxes).

These judgments are a lot like other predictions, and you can see how you might apply the patterns beyond to startups, tech, art and science.

In short: foxes are better at predicting the future. They are less certain, more open to varieties of facts, ready to revise, less captive to rules or totalizing theories.

Hedgehogs are the opposite and suck at predicting. This cognitive style is more predictive than all the other stuff you can think of, like boldness, intelligence, hard work, conservatism, and so on.

The big interesting aha for me though was where the role of hdgehogs can lie. They get a plan in their head and they march over rivers and mountains to make it happen. When the mission is wrong they give heroic speeches, find the northstar in the roughest seas, then fail spectacularly and still don’t understand. But when pointed at the right campaign, they win big and against all the doubts of the surrounding foxes.

Make plans like a fox, but lead the mission like a hedgehog.