Letting the Foxes into Journalism’s Hen(Hedgehog) House

First published March 27, 2014 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

fanhI am rooting for Nate Silver and fivethirtyeight.com, his latest attempt to introduce a little data-driven veracity into the murky and anecdotal world of journalism. But I may be one of the few, at least if we take the current backlash as a non-scientific, non-quantitative sample:

I have long been a fan of Nate Silver, but so far I don’t think this is working. – Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

Nate Silver’s new venture may become yet another outlet for misinformation when it comes to the issue of human-caused climate change, Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.

Here’s hoping that Nate Silver and company up their game, soon. – Paul Krugman, NY Times

Krugman also states:

You can’t be an effective fox just by letting the data speak for itself — because it never does. You use data to inform your analysis, you let it tell you that your pet hypothesis is wrong, but data are never a substitute for hard thinking.

Now..Nate Silver doesn’t disagree with this. In fact, he says pretty much the same thing in his book, The Signal and the Noise:

The numbers have no way of speaking for themselves. We speak for them. We imbue them with meaning.

But he goes on,

Like Caesar, we may construe them in self-serving ways that are detached from their objective reality.

And it’s this construal that Silver is hoping to nip in the bud with FiveThirtyEight. In essence, he wants to do it by being a Fox, to borrow from Isaiah Berlin’s analogy.

‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ We take a pluralistic approach and we hope to contribute to your understanding of the news in a variety of ways.

Silver thinks the media’s preoccupation with punditry is a dangerous thing. Pundits, whether they’re coming from the right or left, are Hedgehogs. They get paid for their expertise on “one big thing.” And the more controversial their stand, the more attention they get. This can lead to a dangerous spiral, as researcher Philip Tetlock found out:

What experts think matters far less than how they think. If we want realistic odds on what will happen next, coupled to a willingness to admit mistakes, we are better off turning to experts who embody the intellectual traits of Isaiah Berlin’s prototypical fox—those who “know many little things,” draw from an eclectic array of traditions, and accept ambiguity and contradiction as inevitable features of life.

Tetlock was researching how expertise correlated with the ability to make good predictions. What he found was that it was actually an inverse relationship. The higher the degree of expertise, the more likely the person in question was a hedgehog. Media pundits are usually extreme versions of hedgehogs, which not only have one worldview, but also love to talk about it. Nate Silver believes that to get an objective view of world events, you need to be a fox, first, but secondly; you should be a fox that’s good at sifting through data:

Conventional news organizations on the whole are lacking in data journalism skills, in my view. Some of this is a matter of self-selection. Students who enter college with the intent to major in journalism or communications have above-average test scores in reading and writing, but below-average scores in mathematics.

So, all this makes sense. The problem in Silver’s approach is that journalism is the way it is because that’s the way humans want it. While I applaud Silver’s determination to change it, he may be trying to push water up hill. Pundits exist not just because the media keeps pushing them in front of us – they exist because we keep listening. Humans like opinions and anecdotes. We’re not hardwired to process data and objectively rationalize. We connect with stories and we’re drawn to decisive opinion leaders. Silver will have to find some middle ground here, and that seems to be where the problems arise. The minute writers add commentary to data; they have to impose an ideological viewpoint. It’s impossible not to. And when you do that, you introduce a degree of abstraction.

The backlash against Fivethirtyeight.com generally falls into two camps: Foxes like Silver that have no problem with the approach but disagree with the specific data put forward and Hedgehogs that just don’t like the entire concept. The first camp may come onside as Silver and his team work out the inevitable hiccups in their approach. The second, which, it should be noted, have a large number of pundits in their midst, will never become fans of Silver and his foxlike approach.

In the end though, it really doesn’t matter what columnists and journalists think. It’s up to the consumers of news media. We’ll decide what we like better – hedgehogs or foxes.

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