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A common failure mode for people who pride themselves in being foxes (as opposed to hedgehogs):

Paying more attention to easily-evaluated claims that don't matter much, at the expense of hard-to-evaluate claims that matter a lot.

E.g., maybe there's an RCT that isn't very relevant, but is pretty easily interpreted and is conclusive evidence for some claim. At the same time, maybe there's an informal argument that matters a lot more, but it takes some work to know how much to update on it, and it probably won't be iron-clad evidence regardless.

I think people who think of themselves as being "foxes" often spend too much time thinking about the RCT and not enough time thinking about the informal argument, for a few reasons:


1. A desire for cognitive closure, confidence, and a feeling of "knowing things" — of having authoritative Facts on hand rather than mere Opinions.

A proper Bayesian cares about VOI, and assigns probabilities rather than having separate mental buckets for Facts vs. Opinions. If activity A updates you from 50% to 95% confidence in hypothesis H1, and activity B updates you from 50% to 60% confidence in hypothesis H2, then your assessment of whether to do more A-like activities or more B-like activities going forward should normally depend a lot on how useful it is to know about H1 versus H2.

But real-world humans (even if they think of themselves as aspiring Bayesians) are often uncomfortable with uncertainty. We prefer sharp thresholds, capital-k Knowledge, and a feeling of having solid ground to rest on.


2. Hyperbolic discounting of intellectual progress.

With unambiguous data, you get a fast sense of progress. With fuzzy arguments, you might end up confident after thinking about it a while, or after reading another nine arguments; but it's a long process, with uncertain rewards.


3. Social modesty and a desire to look un-arrogant.

It can feel socially low-risk and pleasantly virtuous to be able to say "Oh, I'm not claiming to have good judgment or to be great at reasoning or anything; I'm just deferring to the obvious clear-cut data, and outside of that, I'm totally uncertain."

Collecting isolated facts increases the pool of authoritative claims you can make, while protecting you from having to stick your neck out and have an Opinion on something that will be harder to convince others of, or one that rests on an implicit claim about your judgment.

But in fact it often is better to make small or uncertain updates about extremely important questions, than to collect lots of high-confidence trivia. It keeps your eye on the ball, where you can keep building up confidence over time; and it helps build reasoning skill.

High-confidence trivia also often poses a risk: either consciously or unconsciously, you can end up updating about the More Important Questions you really care about, because you're spending all your time thinking about trivia.

Even if you verbally acknowledge that updating from the superficially-related RCT to the question-that-actually-matters would be a non sequitur, there's still a temptation to substitute the one question for the other. Because it's still the Important Question that you actually care about.





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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:04 PM

Good points, but I feel like you're biased against foxes. First of all, they're cute (see diagram). You didn't even mention that they're cute, yet you claim to present a fair and balanced case? Hedgehog hogwash, I say.

Anyway, I think the skills required for forecasting vs model-building are quite different. I'm not a forecaster, so don't trust me on this. But if I were, I believe I would try to read much more and more widely so I'm not blindsided by stuff I didn't even know that I didn't know. Forecasting is caring more about the numbers; model-building is caring more about how the vertices link up, whatever their weights. Model-building is for generating new hypotheses that didn't exist before; forecasting is discriminating between what already exists.

I try to build conceptual models, and afaict I get much more than 80% of the benefit from 20% of the content that's already in my brain. There are some very general patterns I've thought so deeply on that they provide usefwl perspectives on new stuff I learn weekly. I'd rather learn 5 things deeply, and remember sub-patterns so well that they fire whenever I see something slightly similar, compared to 50 things so shallowly that the only time I think about them is when I see the flashcards. Knowledge not pondered upon in the shower is no knowledge at all.

John von Neumann was a hedgefox.

“The spectacular thing about Johnny [von Neumann] was not his power as a mathematician, which was great, or his insight and his clarity, but his rapidity; he was very, very fast. And like the modern computer, which no longer bothers to retrieve the logarithm of 11 from its memory (but, instead, computes the logarithm of 11 each time it is needed), Johnny didn't bother to remember things. He computed them. You asked him a question, and if he didn't know the answer, he thought for three seconds and would produce and answer.”

-- Paul R. Halmos