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Hedgehogs and foxes

THIS IS THE WEEK when wise men bearing gifts are replaced by wise guys bearing lists. The news is full of the Best and Worst, the Ins and Outs, the Screw-ups and Fess-ups of 2005, not to mention the Predictions for 2006.

We have long followed the tradition by cleaning our slate of old mistakes in preparation for a fresh crop. This annual project is aided and abetted by vigilant readers, the sort who are quick to remind us that the world was created in six days, not seven -- on the seventh day He rested -- and that Vermonters do so eat pickles with their maple syrup.

But this year our mistakes seemed piddling compared to the whoppers made in the name of Katrina and Iraq, Harriet Miers and Judith Miller. Who are we to ask forgiveness when the president again denies any mistakes and declares, ''This has been a year of strong progress toward a freer, more peaceful world, and a prosperous America." (Hold the champagne. Who needs bubbly when you're in a bubble?)

Thus, for assorted reasons we break from our Media Culpa awards to take a jaundiced overview of the entire field of experts, those whose punditry and predictions are now preparing you for 2006.

Our guide in this is Philip E. Tetlock, author of ''Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?" Tetlock, a Berkeley business school psychologist, has become an expert on experts by following 284 men and women who make their living offering commentary and advice on political and economic trends. Over 20 years, he tracked 82,361 forecasts on specific matters such as the fall of the Soviet Union and the election of 2000.

The bottom line is that experts are no better at making predictions than dart-throwing monkeys or (not to be confused) careful readers of this newspaper. Experts are overly confident, choose evidence that supports what they already believe, and are loath to remember, let alone admit, when they're wrong.

Lest this support what you already believe about experts, the more interesting part of Tetlock's research is not about what people think but about how they think. He divided experts by psychology rather than politics, using those anthropomorphic creatures described in Isaiah Berlin's famous essay: the hedgehog and the fox.

The closed-minded hedgehogs are those who know ''one big thing" and relate everything to that single, central vision. The open-minded foxes ''know many little things" and accept ambiguity and contradictions.

Expert hedgehogs come in blue and red, left and right, but when things go awry -- whether it's the Iraq War or the War on Poverty -- they are likely to go on believing they had the right idea but the wrong timing, or that they were blindsided by events. The foxes, on the other hand, are more likely to rethink the whole story.

As Tetlock writes, ''Once many hedgehogs boarded a train of thought, they let it run full throttle in one policy direction for extended stretches, with minimal braking for obstacles that foxes took as signs they were on the wrong track."

It's no surprise that foxes are better at forecasting than hedgehogs. But the media roundtables and think tank conferences and wise guy lists are dominated by folks who speak the simple, decisive language of sound bites. Indeed, the quickest way to avoid cable show combat is to tell a booker desperately searching for someone to talk about the death penalty or the Patriot Act that ''I have mixed feelings about that."

The end result is that the voices we hear most are not conservative or liberal. They are hedgehogs: think Bill O'Reilly and Michael Moore. No foxes need apply (even, or especially, on Fox).

In some ways, Tetlock's entire meta-analysis -- graphs, academic-speak and all, -- can be boiled down to a favorite phrase my father would use to describe a colleague: Often wrong but never in doubt. In our media world, the more certain the expert, the more celebrated. And yet the more celebrated, the more likely he or she is to be wrong.

How then do we cultivate good judgment? Most Americans are probably hybrid creatures. In a fox-like moment, Tetlock advises that we listen to our own ambivalence as ''we struggle to strike the right balance between preserving our existing worldview and rethinking core assumptions." Not a bad new year's resolution for a parent or even a president.

Meanwhile, those of us who would like to see politics depolarized might begin by keeping score on political experts and pundits the way we do on weathermen and stock analysts. So, welcome to 2006. Predictions are in the air. Anyone ready to make the first predictions on those predictions?

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is

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