June 7, 2006

Afternoon Reading

Today's Morniing Reading got bumped by black bamboo. Skim down to the last sentences and you will find the "Second Coming" turning again in the widening gyre:


We can see this process in sharp relief when, following the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, we classify experts as ?hedgehogs? or ?foxes.? Hedgehogs are big-idea thinkers in love with grand theories: libertarianism, Marxism, environmentalism, etc. Their self-confidence can be infectious. They know how to stoke momentum in an argument by multiplying reasons why they are right and others are wrong.

That wins them media acclaim. But they don?t know when to slam the mental brakes by making concessions to other points of view. They take their theories too seriously. The result: hedgehogs make more mistakes, but they pile up more hits on Google.

Eclectic foxes are better at curbing their ideological enthusiasms. They are comfortable with protracted uncertainty about who is right even in bitter debates, conceding gaps in their knowledge and granting legitimacy to opposing views. They sprinkle their conversations with linguistic qualifiers that limit the reach of their arguments: ?but,? ?however,? ?although.?

Because they avoid over-simplification, foxes make fewer mistakes. Foxes will often agree with hedgehogs up to a point, before complicating things: ?Yes, my colleague is right that the Saudi monarchy is vulnerable, but remember that coups are rare and that the government commands many means of squelching opposition.?

Imagine your job as a media executive depends on expanding your viewing audience. Whom would you pick: an expert who balances conflicting arguments and concludes that the likeliest outcome is more of the same, or an expert who gets viewers on the edge of their seats over radical Islamists seizing control and causing oil prices to soar?

In short, the qualities that make foxes more accurate also make them less popular.

Posted by Dennis at June 7, 2006 1:43 PM

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