Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Toobin turns hedgehog and fox at same time

The blogosphere is all a-twitter about how oft-lovable legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin could have been so very wrong. . . twice in two days. Playing Mr. Punditpants for CNN’s coverage of the Alito confirmation hearings, Toobin claimed on Monday that a majority of Americans support the Bush administration’s stance on warrantless domestic spying (they don’t—56% oppose). Then, on Tuesday, Toobin went into detail about how Alito voted with the majority in a case involving the strip search of a ten-year-old girl (he was the lone dissenter).

Toobin’s “gaffs” quickly reminded me of a study I’d recently heard about. In Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?, Berkeley psychologist Philip Tetlock not only shows that those who appear as experts in the media get it right no more often than do non-experts, he also details why some get it so very wrong. . . and then get asked back to get it wrong again.

As summarized last month in The New Yorker, Tetlock uses Isaiah Berlin’s metaphor of “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” (Before this, I always thought it was Woody Allen’s metaphor from Husband’s and Wives. You learn something new every day.) Hedgehogs know one big thing, and they try to apply that thing to every situation; foxes know many little things, and stitch together diverse bits of information to draw a conclusion. Hedgehogs are confident of their expertise and get touchy when others don’t “get it.” Foxes are more reserved about their proclamations and their prowess.

In Tetlock’s analysis, foxes get it right more often, but hedgehogs make better pundits, if by “better” we mean that they make bold assessments boldly (which makes for a more lively soundbite). And, the more often a pundit gets asked back, the more sure of him or herself he or she gets, which, in turn, gets the pundit asked back to comment on a broader and broader array of subjects.

When a hedgehog falters, it is soon forgotten or quickly explained away (it just hasn’t happened yet), but when a hedgehog gets it right, it seems very right, since it is often a broad claim.

Is it possible that Toobin has been promoted into hedgehogery? Is he out of his depth or just bad at thinking on his feet? Or, does he just love being on TV, and, so, acts in a way that will keep him there?

Now, I don’t have a problem with Jeffrey liking being on TV, but I do have a problem with us liking it. Or, rather, I have a problem with how much we all like hedgehogs—on television, in the papers, even in the blogosphere—for hedgehogs encourage certitude and discourage nuance. Hedgehogs ask us to pick a side rather than ask a question. Allegiance rather than analysis.

In the end, what makes for a good opinion-maker makes for bad opinion making.

As for Mr. Toobin turning fox, I suppose I should capitalize.


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