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HEDGEHOGS AND FOXES

THE ANCIENT GREEK poet Archilochus remarked that a fox knows many things, whereas a hedgehog knows only one big thing. Twentieth-century philosopher Isaiah Berlin expanded on this idea in The Hedgehog and the Fox, his 1953 essay on Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. And, in two April 2017 issues of Science, three book reviews also discuss this contrasting animal pair.

Heady thinkers, all around, with plenty of tidbits to be shared.

One of the books reviewed is Daniel W. Drezner’s The Idea Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats Are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas. Its Science reviewer, Daniel J. Lee, titles his Science, April 7, 2017, piece “Rise of the Thought Leader,” with the hedgehog’s one big thing as the leader’s thought.

Because of the Internet, Lee writes, “We now have the power to cherry-pick our media outlets, allowing us to hear only voices that we agree with.” This, he notes, disproportionately empowers single-issue evangelists over broadly trained experts.

Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters receives a Science review on April 14, 2017, by Sheril Kirshenbaum titled “Embracing the Unqualified Opinion.” She notes that such cherry-picking of opinion is related to a phenomenon called “confirmation bias,” in which “we readily find and accept evidence that supports our preexisting beliefs.”

This singleminded approach to thought places it firmly in the hedgehog’s territory, whether the thought is a particularly logical one or not.

The third book, also reviewed by Sheril Kirshenbaum, is Dave Levitan’s Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science. Its title recalls a statement made by Ronald Reagan during his run for president in 1980. Reagan used a flight over Mount St. Helens as an example: “I’m not a scientist and I don’t know the figures, but I just have a suspicion that that one little mountain out there has probably released more sulfur dioxide than has been released in the last 10 years of automobile driving or things of that kind that people are so concerned about.”

Notes Science author Kirshenbaum, “Reagan was wrong by orders of magnitude, but his reasoning sounded plausible and the ‘not a scientist’ argument became a popular way to deny, attack, and misrepresent science in the policy-making process.” In a sense, it justified the hedgehog’s approach to knowledge.

Mount St. Helens eruption, May 18 1980. Image from skepticalscience.com by Richard Bowen.

I was curious about Mount St. Helens’ eruption versus auto emissions, so I did a little research. Briefly, it depends upon nuances of definition and from whom one gets the information.

Skeptical Science professes to be “Getting skeptical about global warming skepticism.” Its headline on November 6, 2016 stated, “U.S. Passenger Vehicle Emissions Comparable to 1980 Mt. St. Helens Eruption Occurring Every 3 Days.”

By this argument, a little arithmetic shows Reagan’s claim about ten years of auto emissions to be off by a factor of 1217, i.e., more than three orders of magnitude.

On the other hand, American Thinker was founded by Thomas Lifson, who “became more conservative in adulthood as reality taught him that dreams of perfecting human society always run smack into human nature.” On July 5, 2015, American Thinker posted “Reagan was Right on Sulfur Dioxide Emissions from Mount St. Helens.” Its primary argument, and a valid one, is that sulfur dioxide is not a major constituent of automobile exhaust. The primary controlled pollutants are HC (unburned hydrocarbons), CO (carbon monoxide), NOx (oxides of nitrogen) and VOCs (volatile organic compounds). And, as with any combustion, CO2 is another.

SO2 (sulfur dioxide) is rather further down the list, especially these days with a 10-parts-per-million limit on sulfur content of motor fuels. Of course, we can do nothing about the SO2 released naturally in volcanic activity.

It sounds like Reagan gets points on both sides of the hedgehog/fox ledger.

Kirshenbaum cites other less nuanced examples offered in Not a Scientist. “Levitan’s anecdotes range from the ridiculous to the terrifying, from Congressman Todd Akin’s claim that the female body can shut down a pregnancy after a ‘legitimate rape’ to the time Senator James Inhofe brought a snowball to the Senate floor as evidence against climate change.”

Another example noted is the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) assessment that “raw dairy products are 150 times more likely than pasteurized products to cause illness, a fact that has not swayed raw milk advocates.”

Nichols expressed the hope for serious debate among citizens, experts and policymakers. Notes Kirshenbaum, “… it’s easy to agree with him on many points—for example, that every single vote in a democracy should be equal to every other, but every single opinion should not be.”

The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History, Second Edition, by Isaiah Berlin, Princeton University Press, 2013. 

Where does this leave the hedgehog and the fox? Philosopher Isaiah Berlin said of his book, “I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously. Every classification throws light on something.”

Berlin’s hedgehogs, who view the world through a single lens, include Plato, Dante and Dostoyevsky. His foxes, with wider world views, include Aristotle, William Shakespeare and James Joyce.

Berlin says Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but by belief a hedgehog, and that this duality complicated the Russian novelist’s life no end.

As I noted at the onset, heady thinkers, all around. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

One comment on “HEDGEHOGS AND FOXES

  1. Mark W
    April 28, 2017

    Dennis, you obviously are a fox – bet nobody’s said that to you in a while…..

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