Friday, March 27, 2009

Rotating hedgehogs

Nicholas Kristof's column in the New York Times earlier this week gets at one of the basic functions of spin—turning off our bullshit detectors. He's talking about our tendency to accept "expertise" at face value:

[An] actor was introduced as “Dr. Myron L. Fox” (no such real person existed) and was described as an eminent authority on the application of mathematics to human behavior. He then delivered a lecture on “mathematical game theory as applied to physician education” — except that by design it had no point and was completely devoid of substance. However, it was warmly delivered and full of jokes and interesting neologisms.

Afterward, those in attendance were given questionnaires and asked to rate “Dr. Fox.” They were mostly impressed. “Excellent presentation, enjoyed listening,” wrote one. Another protested: “Too intellectual a presentation.”
Kristof reminds us of Philip Tetlock's book, Expert Political Judgment, which argues that the more reliable expert forecasters are the so-called "foxes" in Sir Isiah Berlin's fox/hedgehog dichotomy, who adopt a more flexible, less dogmatic attitude toward evidence. But even their predictions don't do much better than flipping a coin in terms of accuracy. (Kevin Drum is not impressed by the distinction.)

Here's the thing: Statistics, expert testimony, punditry—they're all thrown at us so fast that we don't have time to evaluate them. As we've moved to a public culture that takes place in real time, on television in particular, our gut reactions take over. One of the signal virtues of the blogosphere is that it offers a culture of second-guessing and fact-checking that even newspapers can't match.

At least, I predict that's how it will be until written blogs are superseded by video blogs, and the whole cycle starts again. But you know how it is with predictions.

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