In the 2015 book Superforecasting, Dr. Philip Tetlock explored humans’ ability to predict future events (e.g., the price of oil, Russian military excursions, which cities ISIS would seize) and why some people are better forecasters than others.
His research makes clear that people who are more ideological aren’t as good at crafting accurate forecasts. In his book, Tetlock dubbed them “hedgehogs,” while he called those who are less likely to see information through an ideological lens “foxes.” The nicknames are from a famous essay by Isaiah Berlin, who borrowed this line from a 2,500-year old Greek poem: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
In Tetlock’s research, the hedgehogs made less accurate forecasts because they were more likely to discount information that went against their beliefs. They were more likely to fit the facts to their ideological preferences, rather than to follow the evidence wherever it might lead them.
A Seattle hedgehog doesn’t like the facts
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant got me thinking about Tetlock’s foxes and hedgehogs this week after she publicly questioned a UW-led study on the effects of Seattle’s new minimum wage law. Sawant questioned the study’s methodology and accused at least one researcher of political bias against a high minimum wage (the researchers sent Sawant a response).
Sawant, of course, is a hedgehog. She’s a Socialist; it’s the “one big thing” she knows. We’re talking about someone who wanted Boeing workers to “take over” the company’s factories and produce buses instead. “We can re-tool the machines to produce mass transit like buses, instead of destructive, you know, war machines,” she said in 2013. That’s a step beyond simple Socialism, of course, if you recall what Marx and Engels wrote about workers seizing “the means of production” in The Communist Manifesto.
Now, the fact that Sawant is an ideologue is no surprise. Many people in politics are. I have ideological leanings myself, and they start with free markets and free people. Despite having an ideological starting point, I’m still interested to see how the five-year UW study turns out. The collaborative research effort seems well thought-out, and we’ll learn something from the final analysis in a few years.
Study shows mixed bag
Sawant doesn’t seem so open to where the evidence may lead her. That’s because the UW study’s initial results show good and bad outcomes from Seattle’s high minimum wage. Sawant would prefer a study that shows only sunshine and roses, not the mixed-bag reality.
She complained that the researchers “chose to emphasize to the press that employment rates and hours worked went down” compared to their expectations of what would have happened in Seattle without the minimum wage hike.
But if that’s the evidence they have found, using a well-designed methodology, then that’s what they should publish. Academic research doesn’t need a stamp of approval from politicians, least of all the Seattle City Council.
At base, Sawant’s criticisms are nakedly political. She makes that clear herself, saying “I’m not only concerned that we’re in danger of drawing erroneous conclusions about Seattle’s minimum-wage increase – I’m concerned about the consequences that could have on the nationwide fight for $15 (per hour).”
Her actual beef with the UW study is that it shows pros and cons of a high minimum wage. In other words, it reflects reality. That murkier narrative makes her goal of bringing a $15 minimum wage to many more cities harder to accomplish. On that possibility, she may be a pretty good forecaster after all.