In his fascinating book, "The Signal and the Noise," Nate Silver talks about two thinking styles: that of the fox and hedgehog. I've blogged about this before in "Sure you're right? You're probably wrong."
In other words, those who were most certain they were right were more likely to be wrong. It's better to be a fox, someone who knows many things, than a hedgehog, who knows one big thing.
The article's author, Sharon Begley, lists the characteristics of foxes (better predictors) and hedgehogs (worse predictors).
Foxes... cognitively flexible, modest, open to self-criticism, consider competing views, doubt power of Big Ideas, recognize uncertainty, pepper their speech and writing with "however" and "but."
Hedgehogs... supremely confident, dismiss opposing views, drawn to top-down arguments based on a Big Idea, seek certainty, dismiss information that undercuts preconceptions.
In punditry though, and this applies to supposed secular and spiritual experts alike, most people like to hear decisive answers rather than tentative opinions.
Even though in my graduate school days I was taught that it's better to be roughly right instead of precisely wrong, brazen black and white statements generally appear more attractive than those in shades of gray.
However (yes, I'm a fox), reality is grayish.
Reading Silver's book this morning, I came across a figure that made me think of how confident most religious "hedgehogs" are about their chosen belief system. And why uncertain "foxes" are more likely to be correct about what, if anything, lies beyond the bounds of physical reality.
Here's Silver's summary of how foxes and hedgehogs think.
Multidisciplinary. Incorporate ideas from different disciplines and regardless of their origin on the political spectrum.
Adaptable. Find a new approach -- or pursue multiple approaches at the same time -- if they aren't sure the original one is working.
Self-critical. Sometimes willing (if rarely happy) to acknowledge mistakes in their predictions and accept the blame for them.
Tolerant of complexity. See the universe as complicated, perhaps to the point of many fundamental problems being insolvable or inherently unpredictable.
Cautious. Express their predictions in probabilistic terms and qualify their opinions.
Empirical. Rely more on observation than theory.
Specialized. Often have spent the bulk of dtheir careers on one or two great problems. May view the opinions of "outsiders" skeptically.
Stalwart. Stick to the same "all-in" approach -- new data is used to refine the original model.
Stubborn. Mistakes are blamed on bad luck or on idiosyncratic circumstances -- a good model had a bad day.
Order-seeking. Expect that the world will be found to abide by relatively simple governing relationships once the signal is identified through the noise.
Confident. Rarely hedge their predictions and are reluctant to change them.
Ideological. Expect that solutions to many day-to-day problems are manifestations of some grander theory or struggle.
This sure reminds me of how fundamentalists react to me and what is said on this blog.
They're critical of dumping a spiritual path, even one that isn't getting a seeker of truth where he or she wants to go, arguing that faith in a religion has to be absolute, never wavering, a lifelong commitment.
They're hugely confident in their chosen dogma, even though they can't provide any demonstrable evidence that what they believe is true.
They're quick to blame a dissatisfied heretic of their religion because he or she didn't exactly follow the tenets of that faith, yet never question whether the religion itself is at fault for not being able to deliver the divine goods that it claims to have in hand.
They're prone to look upon almost everything in life as revolving around their belief system, considering that they've found the One Big Truth that explains everything.
Understand: these ideas about "foxes" and "hedgehogs" are derived from empirical research. Philip Tetlock, a professor of psychology and political science, has been studying expert predictions since 1987. He's written a well-reviewed book about his findings.
Sure, it can be argued that predictions in religion, spirituality, and mysticism are not like other sorts of predictions.
In a sense this is true, because accuracy in foretelling the afterlife, salvation, a second coming, or such is impossible to assess when the predicted event doesn't occur in the lifetime of those making the prediction. But this doesn't change the general validity of fox and hedgehog outlooks.
After all, God either is real or illusory. Heaven and hell either exist or are non-existent. Life afer death either occurs or doesn't occur. We all have to come to grips with what is most likely, given the evidence for supernatural claims.
A blog post from Big Sky Ideas has a good summary of the differences between foxes and hedgehogs, including more excerpts from Nate Silver's book.
Hedgehogs are type A personalities who believe in Big Ideas—in governing principles about the world that behave as though they were physical laws and undergird virtually every interaction in society. Think Karl Marx and class struggle, or Sigmund Freud and the unconscious. Or Malcolm Gladwell and the “tipping point.”
Foxes, on the other hand, are scrappy creatures who believe in a plethora of little ideas and in taking a multitude of approaches toward a problem. They tend to be more tolerant of nuance, uncertainty, complexity, and dissenting opinion. If hedgehogs are hunters, always looking out for the big kill, then foxes are gatherers. Foxes, Tetlock found, are considerably better at forecasting than hedgehogs.
...Foxes may have emphatic convictions about the way the world ought to be. But they can usually separate that from their analysis of the way that the world actually is and how it is likely to be in the near future. Hedgehogs, by contrast, have more trouble distinguishing their rooting interest from their analysis.
Instead, in Tetlock’s words, they create “a blurry fusion between facts and values all lumped together.” They take a prejudicial view toward the evidence, seeing what they want to see and not what is really there.
Just like religious believers.
[Update: came across this humorous video, "Why Nate Silver Got Drunk." Believe in factual reality and his life could be yours!