Nate Silver bashing everywhere I look. For example in the New York Times. Paul Krugman does it. And someone called Timothy Egan. `Creativity vs. Quants‘ is the title of his OpEd – how silly! Does he really thing we quantitative folks are mechanical calculation machines devoid of any creative thought? If you think quantitative work is not creative, you just haven’t done it yet.
Intimidation by quantification
Much more interesting, I thought, was Leon Wieseltier’s take in the the New Republic. I really like Wieseltier’s phrase ‘intimidation by quantification’ – this is how my biological collaboration partners must feel when I bombard them with p-values.
Wieseltier discusses the old idea of the hedgehog and the fox (dating back to ancient Greece) that Silver had used to explain the Fox logo of FiveThirtyEight: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
The fox knows many things, the hedgehog one big thing
Silver thinks of himself as a Fox. This is interesting, because -as Wieseltier points out- the general interpretation of the Fox and Hedgehog story over the centuries seems to prefer the hedgehog over the fox.
- Knowing one big thing shows focus. It shows determination. It shows commitment. It shows depth.
- Knowing many things makes you a Jack-of-all-trades. An unfocussed tinkerer. A superficial dabbler. A shallow thinker.
Thus the hedgehog wins.
The ideology of focus, focus, focus
The same sentiment has been expressed in many different ways over the centuries: “I fear the man of a single book,” said Saint Thomas Aquinas. Probably because the focus on a single book led to particularly deep insights.
Scientists like to see themselves as hedgehogs. For example Shirley M. Tilghman, a molecular biologist and former president of Princeton University, who explained how her leadership was informed by her science background: “I absolutely got [my vision] from science because the way you succeed in science is through focus, focus, and focus.”
The time for hedgehogs is over
But there is other ways to interpret the Fox and Hedgehog fragment:
Why does the Hedgehog only know one big thing? He is nearsighted and myopic.
If you only have one big idea, know only one book, then you are at the mercy of that one bit of knowledge – what if it is wrong? Or insufficient to see the whole?
If you focus, focus, focus your postdoc on one big project – what if it doesn’t work out? Career over!
And even if it works out: if you focus, focus, focus all your work on a single idea, you become a one-trick pony.
Even worse, the insistence on focus builds up walls and boundaries around disciplines: this is MY focus, stay to YOUR focus. You are not an expert here, do what you are good at.
Hooray for Foxes
Like Nate Silver, I’d rather be a resourceful Fox than a myopic Hedgehog. Most scientific problems are too complex to understand them from just one book, just one big idea, just one discipline. Quantitative people are often foxes, because their methods can bring different points of view together.
And you don’t have to choose between focus-focus-focus and shallow tinkering, there is a middle way:
First of all, you don’t need to be an expert in a field to contribute to it. This is why so many computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians and physicist contribute to biology and medicine. They are all foxes; happy to cross the boundaries between disciplines and to know many things.
And then, even if you have a well-defined focus to your work, always have a second major project ‘on the side’. I don’t mean dabbling and tinkering, I mean something you spent enough effort on to make it ready for center stage if the need arises.
And you can always get feedback on how well you are doing by publishing in expert journals in different fields. If you are a shallow fox, you will never get into a good journal anywhere. If you are a resourceful fox you can get into good journals in different fields.
Winter is coming! The time for hedgehogs is over. The snow fox prowls on.