Pundits as Foxes or Merely as Partisans

Isaiah Berlin’s contrast of the hedgehog & the fox is widely applicable, though I’m not sure it works as well as Philip E. Tetlock does when he applies it to pundits. He is, however, quite correct in his assumption that A) being extreme is likely to be more often wrong, and, B) also more interesting. Partisan pundits (or ones with a fixed idea) are seldom broad, deep, historical thinkers but rather hyperbolic, emotional ones.

He is also right, few are asked to compare their prognostications with what actually came to pass. While our politicians, rightly, are held accountable for assessments and predictions of years ago, the pundits doing the critiques are seldom confronted with their unfulfilled prophesies of even a few months.

Of course, bloggers, with access to a variety of search engines and a keen sense of competition with the “old” media, sometimes entertain themselves with just these discrepancies, but our imaginations prefer broad & graspable generalization rather than more ambiguous modified ones.

This is discussed in more length in Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment: How good is it? How can we know? (Thanks to A&L.)

3 thoughts on “Pundits as Foxes or Merely as Partisans”

  1. Ginny,

    Sadly, I’m going to have to disagree with you on the accountability of the press, punditti, and politicians.

    Over the last fifteen years, the public has punished slanted, biased and/or skewed news and punditry much more harshly than either the bureaucrats or politicians in D.C. First with the rise (and fall) of CNN, and then with the ascendence of Fox news, the public has demonstrated that it is willing to change news anchors and commentators than the actual political players themselves. (Bernstein wrote an excellent essay on this trend called “Idiot Culture” in the NR back in the early ninties). So in this sense, the “media” is much more accountable than the actual representatives themselves (to the market, at least).

    A more productive target for the new media’s ire would be the Gerrymandering process, followed closely by the seniority obsessed Party and staffing structure that’s spawned in D.C. In this, the Democrats might have more annoying and out of touch leaders, but the GOP has been unwilling to resist the temptations of rigging it’s own districts and State delegations; and in all fairness, the GOP is in power.

  2. Yes, gerrymandering results in a less responsive, less consensus building politics. But this is less about reporting than prognosticating and less about actions (often stuck on stupid) of the parties than about those who forecast the future in terms of either “doom & gloom” or “rosy scenarios.” (The former more often wrong, but “rosy” also showed pretty lousy predictions, according to Tetlock.)

  3. I agree both that fox vs. hedgehog is not the best way to frame this issue and that Tetlock is on to something. The biases he notes are even more striking in financial journalism, where experts’ predictive accuracy is easily measured yet often ignored and where incentives work against predictive accuracy. Say you are an economist who works for an investment firm, and that you are predicting something like interest rates. You will generally only be punished for inaccurate predictions that fall outside of the consensus. If you are outside of the consensus and right you will do very well, but the way to play it safe is to stay in the same predictive range as your competitors. Since being a sell-side economist or analyst is at least as much a marketing role as an analytic one, and since getting your face on TV may be as valuable as making good predictions, you have a strong incentive to play it safe.

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