December 30, 2012

Tetlock & Forecasting: Foxes v. Hedgehogs, Three Dog Night v. Ramones

This is the time of year when many pundits make predictions (and a few pundits even assess how their predictions of last year worked out), but not me. Granted, I'm always willing to make some predictions -- Compton will be outperformed by San Marino in school test scores! Switzerland will be a nicer place to live than the Congo! -- but nobody seems to find those very interesting.

Political scientist Philip Tetlock published a well regarded book in 2005 Expert Political Judgment recounting the results of having 284 experts make 83,000 forecasts. 

Something I've never seen discussed in all the writing about Tetlock's study is whether his experts were allowed to pick and choose which questions to answer. Or did they, being famous experts, simply volunteer their opinions on everything he asked them?

Let me quote from Robin Hanson's write-up of it:
Tetlock is Professor of Leadership at UC Berkeley, with a background in psychology and political science.  He ran an experiment for many years from the 80s through the early 2000s in which he invited experts on foreign affairs and political science to make predictions about political and economic trends in countries around the world.  Tetlock tracked and evaluated those predictions, developing a large database of both accurate and inaccurate predictions.  ... 
One of the psychological measures or metrics which Tetlock found was well correlated with expert accuracy goes back to a distinction introduced by Isaiah Berlin in his book, The Hedgehog and the Fox. I haven’t read that book, but based on Tetlock’s presentation, Berlin distinguished between two cognitive styles to which he gave these colorful names.  The hedgehog is said to know one thing and know it well.  He sees events and trends in terms of his big idea, and aggressively extends it into new realms.  Hedgehogs tend to be confident in the applicability of their fundamental concepts and impatient with those who "do not get it". 
Foxes in contrast know many small things which they bring to bear in their analyses in a dynamical and flexible way.  They tend to be uncertain and flexible, "on the other hand" types who are skeptical about their own predictive ability and in fact about the whole enterprise of making predictions in such an intractable realm.

Not surprisingly, the foxes did better on average at predicting foreign policy events on Tetlock's surveys. (Hanson presents Tetlock's results here.) According to Tetlock:
“The less successful forecasters tended to have one big, beautiful idea that they loved to stretch, sometimes to the breaking point. They tended to be articulate and very persuasive as to why their idea explained everything.”

Assume there are two polar routes to becoming a prominent forecaster. One is the fox route where you never have any big new ideas, but you strike people as boringly sensible about a lot of stuff (I associate this path with the name David Gergen, although for all I know he may have been routinely wrong about everything -- he was too boringly sensible sounding for me to pay enough attention). Or you can make your name by being right about one new thing once, then pound it into the ground over time as returns diminish. (Maybe Jack Kemp and cutting taxes).

The foxes may be better about predicting a few dozen events. Yet, from the perspective of history, it's the hedgehogs who matter. 

Consider popular music as an analogy. 

The foxiest band of the rock era may have been Three Dog Night, an agglomeration who had a number of major hits in the late 1960s and early 1970s without trying to develop a distinctive sound. They had three different lead singers, they hired experts to play the instruments, and they seldom wrote their own songs, instead preferring tunes by professional songwriters such as Randy Newman, Laura Nyro, Harry Nillson, and Hoyt Axton.

The rock era was longer on hedgehogs than multifaceted foxes, and perhaps the hedgehoggiest band of them all was The Ramones. Occasionally, they would try a little bit different style, but over a 20 year period, their best stuff sounded like their first single Blitzkrieg Bop, a 1976 song that in the 1990s started to get licensed for commercials, and still makes a fortune in licensing (e.g., in 2012 it became the theme song of NFL Thursday Night Football).

The Ramones didn't have the musical talent of Three Dog Night, but for a little while (July 4, 1976 in London) they really were the future of rock and roll. For example, The Clash saw the Ramones on this tour, and their first single White Riot is pure Ramones. But, by nature, The Clash were foxes, so foxish that the doors flew off in a half decade.

P.S. I see Mr. Rockrobster23 came up with the hedgehog v. fox distinction for the Ramones v. Clash back in 2009.

47 comments:

Otis McWrong said...

I saw the Ramones at the 930 Club in Washington, DC in 1982. My seat was such that I could see the back of the amplifiers. Joey had taped a big piece of paper to the back of an amp that said "Washington DC" on it, presumably so he could remember where he was. The Smithereens opened for them and were booed off the stage. People were throwing stuff at them, etc. I was 13 years old so was just watching this all rather wide-eyed.

While the 1980's was mostly a musical wasteland as far as popular music goes, there were some great bands making tracks back then. Beside the big names like ZZ Top and Van Halen, you had the Ramones, Stray Cats, Los Lobos, and the criminally under-rated Blasters going strong.

Aaron Gross said...

I skipped down to the part about the Ramones. Thanks for posting the link to the 1976 thing. Strange that in America it seems kind of the reverse. In 1976 I was in high school listening to WGTB, and the big sensation on WGTB was the Sex Pistols, with "Anarchy in the UK." Wow! I don't remember hearing the Ramones even once in that year. Then 1977, and everything everywhere was Ramones Ramones Ramones. Maybe it was different in New York, but that's how I remember it.

Thursday said...

You can count the number of Ramones songs worth listening to on one hand. They all sound the same, so why listen to any but the best.

Let's! said...

I'd say the Bee Gees even more so than Three Dog Night, because the Brothers Gibbs' lineup never changed.

If you play "Lonely Days" and "You Should Be Dancing" (recorded 6 years apart) back to back, very few people would realize it was the same group/same lead singer/same songwriters.

(According to Google autocomplete, a lot of people think "Lonely Days" is by the Beatles)

Darwin's Sh*tlist said...

The rock era was longer on hedgehogs than multifaceted foxes...

I'm not sure about this. A lot of the biggest selling and most highly-regarded acts were much more in the "fox" camp. These would include the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Queen, the Who, Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, the Police, U2, Bob Dylan, Madonna, and David Bowie.

Some hedgehogs could be big sellers, but with the exception of the punks, were rarely critical darlings. AC/DC, Boston, Lynard Skynard, and most metal acts.

Some, like the Stones, the Allman Brothers and the Beach Boys were somewhere in between.

Anonymous said...

Who was the hedgehog who figured out rap could take over by sampling from good white music. American music will official end when Kanye raps over Jermiah was a bullfrog.

Anonymous said...

So which animal was disco?

Anonymous said...

"in 2012 it became the theme song of NFL Thursday Night Football"

They're forming in a straight line
They're going through a tight wind
The kids are losing their minds
The Blitzkrieg Bop

They're piling in the back seat
They're generating steam heat
Pulsating to the back beat
The Blitzkrieg Bop.

Hey ho, let's go
Shoot 'em in the back now
What they want, I don't know
They're all revved up and ready to go

---------

Isn't this a joke song about SS mass murder?

Education Realist said...

Am I going to be the only commenter who says "Hey, I love Three Dog Night!"? But I am not sure they are really foxes, are they? Just guys who sang well and farmed everything else out. Really, they were 50s musicians in a 70s world.

The Eagles are foxes, wouldn't you say? And the Doobie Brothers, with or without Michael McDonald?

wild hog said...

Beatles were foxers. They had many ideas, styles, and modes. Much bigger and more important act than the Ramones.

Btw, I'm not sure artistic expression is comparable with ideas. Ideas are about right or wrong, and history proves what ideas are right or wrong. Marxism was wrong.

But there is no right or wrong in art.
Ozu and Bresson each had one style, and they were great in their way.

Kurosawa and Scorsese have been versatile in subject and style, and they were great in their way.

So, who was 'right' and who was 'wrong'?

I think it's best to avoid big theories about art. I never much cared for the 'elephant art' and 'termite art' dichotomy of Manny Farber either.

Anonymous said...

Actually there's at least nineteen off their toughest hits compilation and that doesn't count merry Christmas I don't want to fight tonight.

Steve Sailer said...

The Eagles would be a good example of foxes.

For example, I sometimes quote their minor single "James Dean," which has four songwriters credited on it: Don Henley, Glenn Frey, J.D. Souther, and Jackson Browne. That's a lot of talent for one little song.

Anonymous said...

the criminally under-rated Blasters

Dave Alvin has been haunting me for 30 years. First the Blasters, then he replaced Billy Zoom in X, then did some gigs with Country Dick Montana as the Pleasure Barons, and then an outstanding solo career.

King of California:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUMPgnsgL68

Country Dick doing "California Kid", morphing into "Anarchy in the UK", and damn it, it works. (NSFW)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVIz_RhqgH0

Anonymous said...

I've always been awed by the treatment 3DogNight gave Hoyt Axton's material. He was a consummately witty and intelligent songwriter, but the wit and intelligence were distinctly Southern... 3dN managed to translate these to a wider audience. Everyone benefitted.

LemmusLemmus said...

So the Beatles don't matter "from the perspective of history"? What about The Velvet Underground?

Anonymous said...

It's almost a matter of philosophy: would you rather be uncertain all the time (perhaps appropriately so) or be right on target on some occasions and dead wrong on others?

The way Tetlock&Co keep score (Brier score), foxes are "better" forecasters because they are rarely extremely confident of anything. E.g., let say there are two events to predict. A fox says it's 50:50 for both of them while hedgehog gets one 100% right and another 100% wrong. The fox will have twice higher Brier score in this example (0.5 vs 1.0) Based on this, Tetlock would call the fox "better forecaster". Personally, I wouldn't.

Anonymous said...

"twice higher Brier score"

Should be: twice better Brier score (the lower, the better)

Anonymous said...

How about dogs and cats?

Dogs chase after and bark about every trend. Cats keep low and ignore most trends and then pounce on what seems most right.

Btw, what about the role of taboos in predictions? If we can't honestly discuss Jewish power, there's a lot that's not gonna be understood.

Anonymous said...

Trees vs forests.

Anonymous said...

"The foxes may be better about predicting a few dozen events. Yet, from the perspective of history, it's the hedgehogs who matter."

This is a case of assessing the past than the future.
So, hedgehogism is useful in making sense of the past. Easier and safer to build theories on what happened.
But since the future is unknowable, better to be cautious with foxities.

Aaron Gross said...

Isn't this a joke song about SS mass murder?

Yeah, kind of. The Ramones are yet another counter-example to the right-wing talking point, "You can get away with ironic gestures towards Stalin/Communism but not towards Hitler/Nazism." One of the record company execs was uneasy about the Nazi references, but Joey Ramone (Jeffrey Hyman) assured him that it was all in good ironic fun.

Here's a 1975 (!) clip of "Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World."

Anonymous said...

The argument isn't about irony it's about support for said ideology. Way to change the goal posts. Leftist love camping it up on the Nazis. Not so much on the commies. You are mistakenly thinking that revolutionary chic is irony. It's not its chic.

Steve Sailer said...

Dee Dee Ramone's mom was a German war bride, so there was a lot of jokey German references in his lyrics.

Auntie Analogue said...


Was Mitt Romney a hedgehog who lost by trying to play the fox? Was Barack Obama a fox who succeeded at playing the hedgehog?

What would a foxy hedgehog look like? Ann Coulter? Michelle Malkin? Let's hear your nominees, Sailermates!

Whiskey said...

The Ramones recorded a song protesting Reagan going to Bitburg, IIRC. "Bonzo goes to Bitburg?"

Predictions are a fairly robust marketplace, but you will see them in hedge funds now mostly, bets with real big money on what will happen. Paulson made a lot on Subprime, then Gold, but lost on a Grexit. Sometimes you can lose by betting right too early.

Foxes can often be too clever by half, in crowd-think or lacking the courage of their insight. Machiavelli felts a Prince had to to have sense of a fox to sniff out traps the courage of a Lion to fight enemies.

I'd say guys who make money over the long term (excluding crony capitalists like Soros, Buffett, and Slim who use money to buy political favors to make more money) on bets on the future are both foxes (i.e. generalists) and hedgehogs (i.e. they have a deep understanding of cash flows, or the impact of new technology, or the ebb and flows of global trade and wealth shifts).

For artists, I'd say the sweet spot is those who can adapt to changing tastes on the edges but remain the same. You can hear an Elton John song from the 1970's (Benny and the Jets, Rocketman) and the late 1990s (Candle in the Wind) and they sound similar, but exactly the same, and you can what the guy has added and taken away. Same with U2, Louis Armstrong, or Sinatra, or the Stones.

Anonymous said...

Johnny Ramone was famously conservative and a Reaganite. "Punk is right wing", he said.

Bonzo goes to Bitburg was a Joey and Dee Dee Ramone song.

Auntie Analogue said...


Hedgehogs & foxes?

Wait...let me consult my Ouija board and Magic 8-Ball, and throw the Ching. They're about all I have left since that Oracle at Delphi took down her shingle - and that Criswell guy was no bargain.

Oh, wait...anyone up for a little haruspicy? Just like going off the Fiscal Cliff Klavan, it'll require that we (except, of course, federal employees) sacrifice.

Aaron Gross said...

I'm not conflating chic and ironic joking. Right-wingers complain about double standards in both (and there's a lot of truth to the complaint, but it's exaggerated). "You make light-hearted jokes about Communists, but if someone did that about the Nazis...."

Anyway, while "Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World" is obviously laughing at the "little German boy," "Blitzkrieg Bop" is ambiguous. It's ironic about the Nazis, but not necessarily against them.

Re "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," Johnny disliked the lyrics because they criticized "the greatest president ever." Reportedly, the Ramones compromised by keeping the lyrics and changing the title to "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down."

carol said...

it never fails, the one group that 'really mattered' is one I've never once heard. were the ramones kind of a northeast hipster thing?

Anonymous said...

One is the loneliest theory I've ever seen.

not a hacker said...

Up until the mid-80's, "one trick pony" was a generally known epithet, but since then it's hardly ever used. Does this mean hedgehogs now rule?

I'd punch Truth in the Nose said...

San Francisco's most popular pizza restaurant by far, even with younger types, is one that has those old-style coin jukeboxes at each booth. I was there last night, and there's nothing by the Ramones or 3DN, or the Stones, Zep, Who, Eagles, Cars, B-52's, P.J. or any of the other self-consciously hip acts. Instead, it's American Pie, NY-NY, Runaround Sue, Get Ready, Hit The Road Jack. When people really want to enjoy themselves and don't expect to be judged on their music consumption, it's power pop over all, and good for them.

Anonymous said...

Were the Beatles hedgehogs or foxes?

One could argue they were foxes since they had no single approach or style. They experimented with different things and jumped on different fashions. Beatles didn't come up with psychedelia but released the most popular and famous psychedelic album: Sgt Pepper.

On the other hand, there was a single/dominant governing principle behind the Beatles: they would decide who they are, and they would wrote most of their own material, especially beginning in 1965. So, in that sense, they were different from Three Dog Night. There was a kinda 'purity' to being the Beatles, which is what set them apart from the Monkees and most British Invasion bands(like Herman's Hermits). Herman's Hermits couldn't progress beyond teenybopperism since that's all they were. Monkees had no control over their image and music. They were acts, not artists.
Beatles, though a popular band, did what they wanted to do. They followed their own bliss, and that became the new template for rock stars. Thus, they had a certain authenticity.
Even Elvis didn't have control over his image. Though a great star, he was often as not following other people's orders. Colonel Parker and the industry controlled him. But Brian Epstein never controlled the heart/art of the Beatles. Early on, Epstein did clean them up by putting them in three piece suits, de-greasing their hair, and making them bow to the audience, but Beatles really made themselves. They had the ability to grow and change, which is why they lasted as long as they did whereas most Brit Invasion bands--even a class act like Dave Clark Five--had a much shorter lifespan.

That said, Beatles have been criticized by some as having been trend-followers than trend-setters(at least after Rubber Soul, up to which they seemed to be ahead of everyone). Brian Wilson was Sunshine and California from beginning to end. Stones were the bad boys of rock from beginning to end. Dylan was folk rock poet, a Jewish take on Americana. Led Zeppelin was hard rock. The Who were mod rebels. Neil Young was a white man as Injun. Grateful Dead was a--or the--hippie band. Pink Floyd were avant garde art rockers. Bowie was a weirdo. The Clash were anarchists.

But what the Beatles really? What were they committed to? What was their governing principle beyond making their own music? This is why Beatles come across as both more and less than other great acts. In their versatility and comprehensiveness, they covered more ground. (Also, Beatles had four distinct personalities that didn't really gel but had wonderful chemistry. Lennon was the nasty boy, Paul was lover boy, Harrison was the dark horse mystic, and Ringo was the deadpan wit. In contrast, all of the Stones were bad boys and all of Floyd were far out experimenters.) But they never settled on one theme or image as Beatle-ness. And perhaps this is why they broke up in 1970 whereas Stones, Who, Floyd, and other major acts lasted much longer. Beatles could never agree or decide what they really were.

Anonymous said...

"You make light-hearted jokes about Communists, but if someone did that about the Nazis...."

Generally, it's okay if Jews make fun of Nazi stuff. Consider PRODUCERS by Mel Brooks.

Anonymous said...

I bought my first and only Ramones album in the mid 80s after reading Robert Christgau and Dave Marsh. In the 70s, I was into stuff like Saturday Night Fever and Grease and radio hits, and I didn't even know punk existed.

Rock critics said Ramones were good, so I got their first album(I think). Blitzkrieg Bop sounded like a sick joke.
I did enjoy 'beat on the brat with a baseball bat', but after side one, I thought I got the gist of it. Listening to more Ramones would have been like getting beat with a baseball bat.

Anonymous said...

http://www.robertchristgau.com/get_artist.php?name=Ramones

Aaron Gross said...

Can't get enough of the Ramones. Thanks, Anonymous, for posting the Christgau link. An "A" from him is pretty extraordinary. Straight-As on the first four albums - wow.

By the way, the Ramones were required to change the first line of "Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World" for the album. You can see Joey sing the original on the 1975 link I posted: "I'm a Nazi, baby, I'm a Nazi, yes I am." I guess there were too many "Nazi"s in the first two lines. It got changed to "I'm a shock trooper in a stupor, yes I am"; which, when you think about it, is a really lousy line that almost ruins the whole song. The line is like Randy Newman's first-person song about rednecks - really stupid.

Steve Sailer said...

What? Randy Newman's not a redneck? Next, you'll be telling me he's short.

Aaron Gross said...

"Short People" didn't make the same mistake as "Rednecks." In "Short People," the speaker stayed in character. In "Rednecks," the first-person "redneck" speaker sounded like a smart-ass suburban Jewish songwriter writing about rednecks. "I'm a redneck and I'm real dumb," ha ha ha.

"I'm a shock trooper in a stupor" is not something that would be said by the character in "Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World."

Aaron Gross said...

P.S. Since you mentioned "Short People" - it also illustrates what I've said before, that no ironic message can be received 100% ironically. Same with liberals thinking they're laughing "at" Archie Bunker. Even the people who get the irony are receiving the message partly non-ironically.

Anonymous said...

Ramones phooey.

Much better:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0fQHSqoD9Q

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcwYEGdKto8

Anonymous said...

this is a song.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPvt4PNGiEc

Anonymous said...

Not sure how this study on predictive ability relates to rock'n'roll, if at all, which I doubt. The point that the big ideas are more important historically is probably true without irrelevant digression into pop culture. Can we think of any more relevant example? ...say, Marxism?

Anonymous said...

I had predicted that after 9-11 New York companies would disperse and relocate to corporate parks in communities from where their employees commute. I couldn't have been more wrong. I guess power lunches at Applebee's weren't that appealing. I'm not afraid to make predictions though - what do I have to lose?
I predict that assisted living and nursing homes will have a boom until about 2044.
I predict a decline in medical innovation. I use this site as a basis for this. It seems that smart people who comment here find medicine to be an icky job with declining prestige.
I predict that e-learning systems like ALEKS, which I learned about here, will be used at every level of education, but will not replace brick and mortar institutions because, as Paul Graham, whom I learned about here, says "face to face is very high bandwidth."
I predict that Hispanics will intermarry heavily with whites because Hispanics want to be taller and white people find tan people super attractive.
I predict that the ongoing minimalist/de-clutter/Feng Shui ascetic movement will continue along with its' cousin Artisan/Locavore trends.
Am I a fox or a Hedgehog?

Anonymous said...

I know that if your major issue is immigration and the ethnic identity of the country, it is silly to be discredited by making faulty predictions about tangential issues like musical trends, but your commenters don't have to worry about that and it would be interesting to see what some of your heavy hitters might have to say - you should start a thread asking for their predictions every New Year.

http://www.spaciousplanet.com/world/new/the-50-worst-predictions-of-all-time

Anonymous said...

"smart-ass suburban Jewish songwriter writing about rednecks"

Funniest thing about Randy is he's a Jew trying to sing like a Negro.

Anonymous said...

better than punk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKLvKZ6nIiA

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vDN4L7cAQf0

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=noER_E34jr4