Foxes, hedgehogs, and the study of international relations

When we last left off, we were discussing Louis Menand’s New Yorker review of Philip Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?. In his review, Menand highlights an interesting observation by Tetlock on who did better at predicting world political events. It was no news to Tetlock… that experts got ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast.

When we last left off, we were discussing Louis Menand's New Yorker review of Philip Tetlock's Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?. In his review, Menand highlights an interesting observation by Tetlock on who did better at predicting world political events. It was no news to Tetlock... that experts got beaten by formulas. But he does believe that he discovered something about why some people make better forecasters than other people. It has to do not with what the experts believe but with the way they think. Tetlock uses Isaiah Berlin?s metaphor from Archilochus, from his essay on Tolstoy, ?The Hedgehog and the Fox,? to illustrate the difference. He says: Low scorers look like hedgehogs: thinkers who ?know one big thing,? aggressively extend the explanatory reach of that one big thing into new domains, display bristly impatience with those who ?do not get it,? and express considerable confidence that they are already pretty proficient forecasters, at least in the long term. High scorers look like foxes: thinkers who know many small things (tricks of their trade), are skeptical of grand schemes, see explanation and prediction not as deductive exercises but rather as exercises in flexible ?ad hocery? that require stitching together diverse sources of information, and are rather diffident about their own forecasting prowess. A hedgehog is a person who sees international affairs to be ultimately determined by a single bottom-line force: balance-of-power considerations, or the clash of civilizations, or globalization and the spread of free markets. A hedgehog is the kind of person who holds a great-man theory of history, according to which the Cold War does not end if there is no Ronald Reagan. Or he or she might adhere to the ?actor-dispensability thesis,? according to which Soviet Communism was doomed no matter what. Whatever it is, the big idea, and that idea alone, dictates the probable outcome of events. For the hedgehog, therefore, predictions that fail are only ?off on timing,? or are ?almost right,? derailed by an unforeseeable accident. There are always little swerves in the short run, but the long run irons them out. Foxes, on the other hand, don?t see a single determining explanation in history. They tend, Tetlock says, ?to see the world as a shifting mixture of self-fulfilling and self-negating prophecies: self-fulfilling ones in which success breeds success, and failure, failure but only up to a point, and then self-negating prophecies kick in as people recognize that things have gone too far.? Tetlock did not find, in his sample, any significant correlation between how experts think and what their politics are. His hedgehogs were liberal as well as conservative, and the same with his foxes. (Hedgehogs were, of course, more likely to be extreme politically, whether rightist or leftist.) He also did not find that his foxes scored higher because they were more cautious?that their appreciation of complexity made them less likely to offer firm predictions. Unlike hedgehogs, who actually performed worse in areas in which they specialized, foxes enjoyed a modest benefit from expertise. Hedgehogs routinely over-predicted: twenty per cent of the outcomes that hedgehogs claimed were impossible or nearly impossible came to pass, versus ten per cent for the foxes. More than thirty per cent of the outcomes that hedgehogs thought were sure or near-sure did not, against twenty per cent for foxes. The upside of being a hedgehog, though, is that when you?re right you can be really and spectacularly right. Great scientists, for example, are often hedgehogs. They value parsimony, the simpler solution over the more complex. In world affairs, parsimony may be a liability?but, even there, there can be traps in the kind of highly integrative thinking that is characteristic of foxes. Elsewhere, Tetlock has published an analysis of the political reasoning of Winston Churchill. Churchill was not a man who let contradictory information interfere with his id?es fixes. This led him to make the wrong prediction about Indian independence, which he opposed. But it led him to be right about Hitler. He was never distracted by the contingencies that might combine to make the elimination of Hitler unnecessary. (emphases added) I'll need to read the book to see the methodology by which Tetlock distinguished hedgehogs from foxes, but let's assume that his finding is correct. What does this imply for the study of international relations? Potentially a lot -- from my vantage point, the incentives in the IR discipline are heavily skewed towards the hedgehogs. Methodologically, the growing sophistication of formal, statistical, and even qualitative techniques make it increasingly difficult for any one scholar to keep up their abilities in more than one area. Professionally, our field rewards the hedgehogs, the ones who come up with "the big idea" that can explain it all. As a result, my field has a lot of hedgehogs, which means that we may not be of much use when it comes to policy relevance. Is this a bad thing? I'm sure that many commenters will instinctively say, "yeah!" but it's not so clear cut. First, if the point of the academy is to nourish unpopular but important ideas, then it's a good thing we have a lot of hedgehogs, because every once in a while they will produce the kind of insight that helps to understand Really Big Truths. Second, asking IR scholars for accurate predictions about the future might be like asking meterologists for an accurate weather forecast three months ahead. That's impossible -- there are just too many variables. It might be that what political scientists do best is not predicting future events but rather explaining the past and present in a way that provides limited but useful insights into the very near future. Third, there are think tanks for the kind of expert predictions discussed in Tetlock's book. It's true that think tanks have their own perversities, but perhaps the best thing to do is fix them rather than the academy. Despite those counterarguments, I think a few more IR foxes might be a good idea. [Good idea! Did you know Salma Hayek will be co-hosting the Nobel Peace Prize Concert on December 10th?--ed. That's not who I meant by foxes. Oh.... did you mean Angelina Jolie's work as a United Nations ambassador?--ed. No, and you're not helping right now.] I'll leave this question to the commenters.

When we last left off, we were discussing Louis Menand’s New Yorker review of Philip Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?. In his review, Menand highlights an interesting observation by Tetlock on who did better at predicting world political events.

It was no news to Tetlock… that experts got beaten by formulas. But he does believe that he discovered something about why some people make better forecasters than other people. It has to do not with what the experts believe but with the way they think. Tetlock uses Isaiah Berlin?s metaphor from Archilochus, from his essay on Tolstoy, ?The Hedgehog and the Fox,? to illustrate the difference. He says:

Low scorers look like hedgehogs: thinkers who ?know one big thing,? aggressively extend the explanatory reach of that one big thing into new domains, display bristly impatience with those who ?do not get it,? and express considerable confidence that they are already pretty proficient forecasters, at least in the long term. High scorers look like foxes: thinkers who know many small things (tricks of their trade), are skeptical of grand schemes, see explanation and prediction not as deductive exercises but rather as exercises in flexible ?ad hocery? that require stitching together diverse sources of information, and are rather diffident about their own forecasting prowess.

A hedgehog is a person who sees international affairs to be ultimately determined by a single bottom-line force: balance-of-power considerations, or the clash of civilizations, or globalization and the spread of free markets. A hedgehog is the kind of person who holds a great-man theory of history, according to which the Cold War does not end if there is no Ronald Reagan. Or he or she might adhere to the ?actor-dispensability thesis,? according to which Soviet Communism was doomed no matter what. Whatever it is, the big idea, and that idea alone, dictates the probable outcome of events. For the hedgehog, therefore, predictions that fail are only ?off on timing,? or are ?almost right,? derailed by an unforeseeable accident. There are always little swerves in the short run, but the long run irons them out. Foxes, on the other hand, don?t see a single determining explanation in history. They tend, Tetlock says, ?to see the world as a shifting mixture of self-fulfilling and self-negating prophecies: self-fulfilling ones in which success breeds success, and failure, failure but only up to a point, and then self-negating prophecies kick in as people recognize that things have gone too far.? Tetlock did not find, in his sample, any significant correlation between how experts think and what their politics are. His hedgehogs were liberal as well as conservative, and the same with his foxes. (Hedgehogs were, of course, more likely to be extreme politically, whether rightist or leftist.) He also did not find that his foxes scored higher because they were more cautious?that their appreciation of complexity made them less likely to offer firm predictions. Unlike hedgehogs, who actually performed worse in areas in which they specialized, foxes enjoyed a modest benefit from expertise. Hedgehogs routinely over-predicted: twenty per cent of the outcomes that hedgehogs claimed were impossible or nearly impossible came to pass, versus ten per cent for the foxes. More than thirty per cent of the outcomes that hedgehogs thought were sure or near-sure did not, against twenty per cent for foxes. The upside of being a hedgehog, though, is that when you?re right you can be really and spectacularly right. Great scientists, for example, are often hedgehogs. They value parsimony, the simpler solution over the more complex. In world affairs, parsimony may be a liability?but, even there, there can be traps in the kind of highly integrative thinking that is characteristic of foxes. Elsewhere, Tetlock has published an analysis of the political reasoning of Winston Churchill. Churchill was not a man who let contradictory information interfere with his id?es fixes. This led him to make the wrong prediction about Indian independence, which he opposed. But it led him to be right about Hitler. He was never distracted by the contingencies that might combine to make the elimination of Hitler unnecessary. (emphases added)

I’ll need to read the book to see the methodology by which Tetlock distinguished hedgehogs from foxes, but let’s assume that his finding is correct. What does this imply for the study of international relations? Potentially a lot — from my vantage point, the incentives in the IR discipline are heavily skewed towards the hedgehogs. Methodologically, the growing sophistication of formal, statistical, and even qualitative techniques make it increasingly difficult for any one scholar to keep up their abilities in more than one area. Professionally, our field rewards the hedgehogs, the ones who come up with “the big idea” that can explain it all. As a result, my field has a lot of hedgehogs, which means that we may not be of much use when it comes to policy relevance. Is this a bad thing? I’m sure that many commenters will instinctively say, “yeah!” but it’s not so clear cut. First, if the point of the academy is to nourish unpopular but important ideas, then it’s a good thing we have a lot of hedgehogs, because every once in a while they will produce the kind of insight that helps to understand Really Big Truths. Second, asking IR scholars for accurate predictions about the future might be like asking meterologists for an accurate weather forecast three months ahead. That’s impossible — there are just too many variables. It might be that what political scientists do best is not predicting future events but rather explaining the past and present in a way that provides limited but useful insights into the very near future. Third, there are think tanks for the kind of expert predictions discussed in Tetlock’s book. It’s true that think tanks have their own perversities, but perhaps the best thing to do is fix them rather than the academy. Despite those counterarguments, I think a few more IR foxes might be a good idea. [Good idea! Did you know Salma Hayek will be co-hosting the Nobel Peace Prize Concert on December 10th?–ed. That’s not who I meant by foxes. Oh…. did you mean Angelina Jolie‘s work as a United Nations ambassador?–ed. No, and you’re not helping right now.] I’ll leave this question to the commenters.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner

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