President Bush has recently taken up reading. Ordinarily, that would be a good thing, if only because I found his anti-intellectualism and lack of curiousity deeply troubling. The bad news is that we know what books Bush has actually been reading. I think the man has a serious case of confirmation bias. Bush was recently caught reading A History of the English Peoples Since 1900, by the conservative British historian Andrew Roberts:
With this book, Andrew Roberts takes his place as the fawning court historian of the Bush administration. He claims this role not just by singing the Bush administration’s achievements but by producing a version of the past that conforms to and confirms its prefabricated view of the world. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples feeds Bush’s growing preference for the unknowable future to a problematic present, by assuring him that history will vindicate him, as it did Churchill and Truman, if only he continues to hold firm.
Other recent favorites Bush has cited fall into this same, self-justifying category, including Natan Sharansky’s The Case for Democracy and Mark Steyn’s America Alone. Are we sure we want a president who spends so much time reading? The leader who loves books that tell him he is great and right may be worse than the leader who does not love books at all.
This habit of only being interested in confirming viewpoints is troubling on a number of levels. But I think the most compelling case against such a biased thought process comes from Philip Tetlock’s authoritative Expert Political Judgment. In that book – which was based on twenty years of research – Tetlock demonstrated that professional pundits and political experts actually perform worse than random chance when predicting the probability of specific events happening in the future.
But not all experts were equally inept. After carefully analyzing his results, Tetlock distinguished between experts who act like hedgehogs and experts who act like foxes*:
Low scorers [experts who performed badly] look like hedgehogs: thinkers who “know one big thing,” aggressively extend the explanatory reach of that one big thing into new domains, display bristly impatience with those who “do not get it,” and express considerable confidence that they are already pretty proficient forecasters, at least in the long term. High scorers look like foxes: thinkers who know many small things (tricks of their trade), are skeptical of grand schemes, see explanation and prediction not as deductive exercises but rather as exercises in flexible “ad hocery” that require stitching together diverse sources of information, and are rather diffident about their own forecasting prowess.
Bush, to be sure, is a classic hedgehog. Like all hedgehogs, he is driven by a single theme: The Global War on Terror. Everything else is trifling in comparison, for we are engaged in a Churchillian, existential struggle for survival. One can criticize that ideology – and one can certainly criticize its implementation – but what I find even more troubling is Bush’s complete lack of interest in competing ideologies. The man is incapable of dealing with uncertainty, so he just pretends that uncertainty doesn’t exist.
Tetlock’s research demonstrates the importance of always criticizing yourself, trying to generate counterfactuals that falsify your beliefs. For Bush, this might involve reading a book by someone who didn’t share his underlying philosophy. Instead, the opposite seems to have occurred. Bush is curious, but only for ideas that confirm his worldview. Because he knows that all swans are white, he’s stopped looking for black swans. Tetlock reminds us what a mistake this is:
The dominant danger remains hubris, the mostly hedgehog vice of closed-mindedness, of dismissing dissonant possibilities too quickly.
Now who does that sound like?
*I wonder what Isaiah Berlin would have thought of Bush? Not much, I wager.