The Frontal Cortex

Bush is a Hedgehog

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Jake Young
    March 29, 2007

    I loved Tetlock’s book, and I totally agree that Bush is a hedgehog. However, I would add an additional point…

    Tetlock also poses Churchill as another example of a hedgehog. Churchill was railing against the Nazi menace long before it was recognized as one, and as a consequence everyone thought he was a crank. History eventually turned his way, and he was the ideal man to confront fascism when the time came.

    One of the points that Tetlock makes is that being a hedgehog is quite productive when you are right because you will never, ever give up. On the other hand, when you are wrong being a hedgehog can be a disaster because you will ride that horse into the ground no matter what the cost.

    The question is not whether we should have hedgehogs — we probably always will. The question is which hedgehog to listen to.

    Tetlock also offers a sort of solution in that regard. Rather than encouraging everyone to be fox-like, the best system for prediction is a market of foxes and hedgehogs. This allows the selection of correct views from among a mixture of the strident and the flexible.

  2. #2 blf
    March 29, 2007

    Bush 2 does seem to be hedgehog (but not as cute as the real animal), but is the one big idea terrorism? Oil is another candidate; Mr bin Laden’s crimes simply gave Bush 2 an opportunity to acquire even more oil. This would seem to fit better with (to take a recent issue) the attempt to gut to ESP. And with the climate change denialism, the lack of concern for the rule of law, and on and on. And on. It seems you could commit a lot of actions (and inactions) under the guise of “oil”.

    And yes, I realise this is dangerously close to a crank or conspiracy theory.

  3. #3 Dan
    March 29, 2007

    A common, and irritating, conceit of liberals is that they think they are more open minded then their opponents. The irony of course is that this conceit suggests that, if anything, the opposite is true. I’ve often noticed how, for exmaple, critics of Pope Benedict and the Catholic Church often are remarkably ignorant of both subjects — typically they haven’t read a single book written by the Pope and do not understand the basic teachings of the Church. There are many other examples, on both the left and the right, of people closing themselves off to opposing viewpoints. In the Middle Ages there was a type of debate called “disputation” that required a person advancing an argument to first set forth fully and completely the oponent’s argument. Modern polemics on all sides of the political spectrum suffer greatly by not following this convention.

  4. #4 Dumbo
    March 30, 2007

    Bush is not just a hedgehog, but a certain type of hedgehog, of the messiah complex variety. Bush has said more than once now that God told him to invade Iraq. We don’t know how exactly God speaks to him. Maybe they have their own private language, or they use Morse Code, or Bush hears the voice of Darth Vader telling him who to bomb. Whatever it is, he hears it, it tells him to kill people in large numbers for some incomprehensible divine purpose, and he is so certain of this that he can just ignore all the evidence to the contrary. Like, he doesn’t seem to question why God would tell him to get into a war he is losing.

  5. #5 Raging Bee
    March 30, 2007

    Great — you just insulted a creature that’s cute, harmless, useful for getting rid of garden pests, and already endangered. Is there no end to your depravity?!

  6. #6 Raging Bee
    March 30, 2007

    Mr bin Laden’s crimes simply gave Bush 2 an opportunity to acquire even more oil.

    Yeah, right. How much oil DID he acquire? Enough to refuel the planes, tanks and APCs?

  7. #7 Warren
    March 30, 2007

    Great — you just insulted a creature that’s cute, harmless, useful for getting rid of garden pests, and already endangered. Is there no end to your depravity?!
    Posted by: Raging Bee

    It’s not unprecedented; for years many have been calling Duh-bya a chimpanzee, which I insist is brutal slander against all P. Troglodytes.

  8. #8 XPM
    March 30, 2007

    Dan wrote:

    In the Middle Ages there was a type of debate called “disputation” that required a person advancing an argument to first set forth fully and completely the oponent’s argument. Modern polemics on all sides of the political spectrum suffer greatly by not following this convention.

    From Wikipedia:

    A significant category of disputations took place between Christian and Jewish theologians in order to convince Jews to convert. Often the Christian side was represented by a recent convert from Judaism. Christians believed that only the refusal of the Jews to accept Christ stood in the way of the Second Coming. The only way for the Jewish side to ‘win’ was to force a draw by drawing the Christian side into a position in which it was necessary to deny the Old Testament to win, committing heresy. According to Michael J. Cook, “Since ‘winning’ a debate could well jeopardize the security of the Jewish community at large, political considerations certainly entered into what Jewish disputants publicly said or refrained from saying. … Official transcripts of these proceedings, moreover, may not duplicate what actually transpired; in some places what they record was not the live action, as it were, but Christian polemical revision composed after the fact.”