Foxes and hedgehogs: Let us all be foxes

Foxes and hedgehogs: Let us all be foxes

As we make our way through this electoral cycle, the noise steadily mounts —from the pundits, the media who promote the pundits, and the candidates themselves who use the media to promote themselves. Let’s take a step back from the noise to consider what types of analyses, predictions and assertions that we’re hearing.

The ancient Greek poet Archilochus is credited with saying “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.” The Jewish Oxford philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin famously used this aphorism as the basis of a widely influential essay published in 1953, and since then it has been taken up by many intellectuals and academics.

Berlin divided people into two types of thinkers. Hedgehogs burrow into their dens. They view the world through the lens of one big idea, and they force all empirical data into their mental framework, reinforcing their world view. Foxes, however, are curious, exploring the world and collecting empirical data. They don’t have a single, simple world view, but rather construct a complex, nuanced world view, and let it evolve as they learn new facts. By the law of averages sometimes a hedgehog will happen to be right in its predictions and recommendations, but a fox will have a much better track record of being right over the long run.

Far too many of the political class — including their pundit and media auxiliaries — are hedgehogs, loudly proclaiming gross simplifications of problems and solutions to those problems. Hedgehog messages are easy to communicate, especially in an age where many people have substituted watching short, punchy video clips on Facebook for reading lengthy, analytic journalism articles. On the other hand, fox messages are harder to communicate, requiring patience and genuine reflection. Fox messages are neither neat nor simple. The net result is that in a political climate dominated by hedgehogs, politicians and media play to people’s basest instincts, be they on the left or the right. Extremist views flourish while moderate views are squeezed from both ends. This unbalanced system is exacerbated by the primary system, but it looks to carry into the general election.

In this electoral cycle — and on any other hot button issue, say Israel, for example — let us all resolve to be foxes, and hold our candidates, media and pundits to that standard.