Down the MOOC-hole, where I have been, I haven’t kept score in the Silver/Krugman kerfuffle. But, Plato-preoccupied as I was, I did make a false inference. I knew it was some fox-hedgehog thing. Silver was using Archilochus to frame what is wrong with standard opinion journalism. Perfect! I thought. Because I have read Plato’s Republic.
“Since, then, ‘opinion forcibly overcomes truth’ and ‘controls happiness,’ as the wise men say, I must surely turn entirely to it. I should create a facade of illusory virtue around me to deceive those who come near, but keep behind it the greedy and crafty fox of the wise Archilochus” (365b-c).
Socrates [Adeimantus] is being ironic [contrarian, for argument purposes], of course.
If Socrates were around today, he’d say opinion journalism is a false facade of virtue that overcomes truth. (I can hardly think of a better description of how Leon Wieseltier’s ideal goes wrong in practice. Wearing a heavy crown of virtue, so ostentatiously, doesn’t keep you upright. Everyone who wears one tends to bend to one side or the other, under the weight. Oh, the humanity!)
So of course I figured Silver was self-styling as a Socratic hedgehog, exposing greedy, crafty op-ed foxes. Now that I’ve caught up, by reading all this stuff, I realize the opposite is the case. He thinks he’s the fox, they are the hogs.
It’s not so important, of course, how we parse the fox-hedgehog metaphor. But it might clarify the debate. Silver’s charge against the op-ed hedgehogs (a.k.a. the foxes) is that they know one thing, i.e. their priors.
But that is really more a case of them wanting one thing, i.e. to be right. The charge is really more properly this: the superficially foxy op-ed writer can think many things about many things but wants only one thing, i.e. to ‘know’ he is basically right about everything. Thus, the foxiness of the op-ed writer – the flexibility that comes with not being a specialist but a generalist – is peeled back to reveal crypto-hedgehogism. What all op-ed foxes know how to do is deploy many opinions, in all directions, as spiny defenses of one impervious basic attitude: I am basically right about everything! There is a certain plausibility to that charge.
But it becomes hard to reconstruct the foxish alternative. Is Nate Silver saying he is superficially a hedgehog – i.e. a quant, a number guy? He knows only one thing: how to count? But underneath that superficial monotony, he’s a fox, i.e. he is prepared to think anything? But only if there are good reasons. He has transcended mere human limitations of cognitive bias and motivated reasoning?
That would be hubristic, to say the least.
If you tone it down a bit it makes more sense but it comes out a bit weird, as an advertisement: Silver could just be promising that his folks aren’t going to be total hacks. Being a competent numbers guy doesn’t make you a god, free of cognitive bias, but it does preserve you from being an hack, one might hope. But ‘read us, we are trying to be free of utter hackery, whereas other outlets tend to have at least some people on the payroll who are flagrant hacks’ is kind of a funny pitch.
I haven’t given Silver’s site a chance, because I literally haven’t visited it yet. I’ve been too busy. But it seems to me that critics are right that Silver’s sales pitch – ‘this is what we are doing that is distinctive!’ – has to be misleading. Sales pitches usually are.