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The Reflective Hedgehog

In their excellent book, "Superforecasting, the art & science of prediction", Professor Philip Tetlock and co-author Dan Gardner introduce us to the philosophy of Archilochus - "The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing". Hedgehogs see the world through a single idea or perspective; in their words "like a pair of green-tinted glasses that the hedgehog never takes off".

Foxes instead seek information from many sources to arrive at evidence-based conclusions, expressing their level of doubt openly and plainly. Hedgehogs are beloved by news broadcasters with limited time, and they escape censure because we do not routinely evaluate the accuracy of predictions. But Tetlock and Gardner did just that in their 21-year study into "Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is it? How can we know?". The foxes showed real insight, and the hedgehogs did slightly worse than random guessing.

So where does that leave the hedgehogs? Maybe the recognition that within their numbers could be a small minority, who I would term the "reflective hedgehogs". These individuals might realise that they are not particularly good forecasters, in predicting what will happen when, because they lack the ability to assimilate many different streams of information (foxes). These eclectic few, spared the onslaught of information, have the time to conceive a big picture formed from their limited observations of the world around them; a picture of a destination rather than a journey.

A reflective hedgehog might observe that health is held to be a universal good. Individuals, healthcare professionals and society work collectively to improve individual and population health, with many failures and frequent relapses. Healthcare systems are trying to shift from treating disease to prolonging health, but it is a long battle. The foxes are vital allies in forecasting how risk factors will change or treatments will be discovered. But it is the reflective hedgehog who will observe steadfastly that the collective drive will continue until the goal of optimal health is achieved - whether it takes a decade or a century.


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