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  • Are you a hedgehog or a fox?

  • Are you able to deeply focus on one specific activity, such as rolling up in a spiky ball and sleeping through the winter?

  • Or are you alert to changing circumstances and keep your eyes and ears open to new threats and opportunities?

  • My name's David Spiegelhalter, and I'm a statistician and fascinated by the problems of risk and prediction.

  • Philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote a famous essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, after a famous poem by the Greek poet, Archilochus, who said " The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

  • Think of the people you know, either privately or public figures.

  • Are they hedgehogs, with one overarching way of looking at the world, through which they interpret all around them?

  • Or are they foxes, with no big principles of philosophy, who muddle along adapting to what turns up and changing their minds along the way?

  • Politicians, of course, tend to be hedgehogs.

  • But some are more pragmatic and foxy than others.

  • Now, who would you trust most to make predictions about the future?

  • A confident hedgehog or an uncertain and vacillating fox?

  • This was put to the test in a long series of experiments by political scientist, Philip Tetlock, who studied 284 experts, making 28,000 predictions about long term events.

  • Tetlock was looking at who predicted best.

  • And mainly it made no difference whether the forecaster was an optimist or a pessimist, conservative or liberal.

  • The only consistent pattern was how they thought, not what they thought.

  • He found that foxes were much better at predicting than were hedgehogs.

  • And hedgehogs were particularly poor at subjects at which they were experts.

  • They were just too confident in their forecasts.

  • A classic hedgehog was the historian Arnold Toynbee, who in 1947 was declared TIME magazine's Man of the Year.

  • Others wrote that he was the most renowned scholar in the world or a universal sage, largely because his great work, A Study of History, spoke to the biggest fear of the time that nuclear weapons were going to end civilization.

  • Toynbee made the confident and comforting prediction that this wouldn't happen.

  • Because it was an opposition to his self-proclaimed scientific theory of history.

  • Toynbee thought that Western civilization wasn't nearly done yet, because it hadn't reached the stage of universal government and a religious renaissance.

  • All 23 civilizations he had studied had done so before they collapsed, and so would the West.

  • He thought the golden age of universal government and religious observance would start around the year 2000.

  • His peers were skeptical and they were right.

  • Today Toynbee is hardly remembered, except perhaps as a classic hedgehog.

  • In his book, Future Babble, Dan Gardner identifies three characteristics of good forecasters.

  • Number one: aggregation.

  • They use multiple sources of information, are open to new knowledge and are happy to work in teams.

  • Number two: metacognition.

  • They have an insight into how they think and the biases they might have, such as seeking evidence that simply confirms pre-set ideas.

  • Number three: humility.

  • They have a willingness to acknowledge uncertainty, admit errors and change their minds.

  • Rather than saying categorically what is going to happen, they are only prepared to give probabilities for future events.

  • Acknowledging, in the words of that great sage, Donald Rumsfeld, both the known unknowns and unknown unknowns.

  • So when someone is telling you what is in store for you, the country, the world, just ask yourself, are they a hedgehog or a fox?

Are you a hedgehog or a fox?

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