Future Babble: Why Pundits Are Hedgehogs And Foxes Know Best

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The world was supposed to end in 2012 … prognostication is a rife, global passion and pundits provide inexhaustible commentary on the future — whether on the economy, climate change or anything in between. Journalist Dan Gardner peers through the lens of cognitive science to expose the predictions industry in his book “Future Babble: Why Pundits Are Hedgehogs And Foxes Know Best.” He show us why the most confident experts are more often wrong — while those less so more often get it right.

Plowing through decades of failed predictions, Gardner then focuses on the research of Philip Tetlock, a professor of psychology who set out to examine the predictive power of 284 experts. Allowing only affirmative or negative answers coupled with a percentage (0 to 100) stating how confident they were, Tetlock arrived at an answer after 27,450 predictions. Apparently, a dart-throwing chimpanzee would have done just as well in many scenarios. Gardner says the simple and disturbing truth is that “experts’ predictions were no more accurate than random guesses.”

However, the future of prediction is not that dire. While monkeys gave some pundits a challenge, others had more solid results. The presence of an identifiable, differential thought process separated the groups and led to Gardner’s adaptive use of the “hedgehog” and “fox” terminology.

Hedgehogs pushed predictions into a single ideal framework that was more often wrong than right, while foxes pulled distinct pieces of information from a variety of places, cautiously predicted and continuously revamped their ideas. Regrettably, hedgehogs are more often in the media limelight, and, as Gardner writes, “The bigger the media profile of an expert, the less accurate his predictions.”

Forecasting a future with an infinite number of potential pathways isn’t a simple matter, as exemplified by Gardner’s offering. So why do we continue seeking answers for the future? As human beings, Gardner writes, “We want to believe. And so we do.” Not knowing is risky and stressful, and many look to the confident air that experts exude — even to the point that failed predictors are still highly sought-after commodities.

Gardner concludes with four suggestions: Accept the world’s complexity and uncertainty; combine a wide variety of information for deeper understanding; be aware of thought fallacies; and strive for humility.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of Brain World Magazine.

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