IVP - Addenda & Errata - Quiet! Expert Thinking

March 26, 2009

Quiet! Expert Thinking

I like Nicholas Kristof’s column on “Learning How to Think” in the NYT today (3/26/09). It’s about “experts” and their track record for, well, getting things wrong. Referring to Philip Tetlock’s research as reported in his book Expert Political Judgment (2005), Kristof sums it up by saying, “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.” That confirms my intuitions about the current economic expertise being served up by the media. And here I thought it was just my cynicism at work.

But what caught my attention was this:

Indeed, the only consistent predictor was fame — and it was an inverse relationship. The more famous experts did worse than unknown ones. That had to do with a fault in the media. Talent bookers for television shows and reporters tended to call up experts who provided strong, coherent points of view, who saw things in blacks and whites. People who shouted — like, yes, Jim Cramer!

Mr. Tetlock called experts such as these the “hedgehogs,” after a famous distinction by the late Sir Isaiah Berlin (my favorite philosopher) between hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs tend to have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning, strong convictions; foxes are more cautious, more centrist, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, more prone to self-doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance. And it turns out that while foxes don’t give great sound-bites, they are far more likely to get things right.

Why did this catch my interest? Because IVP Academic is a virtual den of foxes—certainly in terms of the inclination to see complexity and nuance rather than trading in ideological black and whites. And so too with our authors. This, my friends, has its ups and downs. And I’d lately been dwelling on some of the down sides. But if Tetlock is correct (he’s the expert, right?), in the long term of delayed gratification, perhaps it’s mostly ups.

(Then again, read Kristof’s column for the strategic advantage of being a rat rather than a Yale undergrad!)

Posted by Dan Reid at March 26, 2009 10:43 AM Bookmark and Share

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