Philip Tetlock: Foxes and Hedgehogs

Tetlock also found that specialists are not significantly more reliable than non-specialists in guessing what is going to happen in the region they study. Knowing a little might make someone a more reliable forecaster, but Tetlock found that knowing a lot can actually make a person less reliable. “We reach the point of diminishing marginal predictive returns for knowledge disconcertingly quickly,” he reports. “In this age of academic hyperspecialization, there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals — distinguished political scientists, area study specialists, economists, and so on — are any better than journalists or attentive readers of the New York Times in ‘reading’ emerging situations.” And the more famous the forecaster the more overblown the forecasts. “Experts in demand,” Tetlock says, “were more overconfident than their colleagues who eked out existences far from the limelight.”

From a review of his book in The New Yorker.

He gave a presentation to the Long Now Foundation earlier this year. There’s a summary, but there’re still interesting points that weren’t included. Consider listening to the mp3 recording.

Tetlock is referencing Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox“. A friend once mentioned this to me some time ago in a conversation about HR practices and talent attraction. That conversation sort of dissipated (as casual banter is wont to do) a little after we concluded that although our employers might say they wanted foxes, they were really rewarding hedgehogs.

Speaking of HR, Mr Wang’s post on how the civil service allegedly evaluates performance and potential has been attracting lots of attention. If you ignore the flaming, there’re some good contributions and anecdotes in the comments section.

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