I was talking to someone the other day who was trying to make plans for 2021. Those plans were dependent on the plans of others. In the course of our conversation, she said something interesting: “It’s so hard to plan because most of the people I’m talking to can’t see past COVID.”
If anything sums up our current reality, it might be that. We’re all having a lot of trouble seeing past COVID. Or the upcoming U.S. election. Or catastrophic weather events. Or an impending economic crisis. Take your pick. There are so many looming storm clouds on the horizon that it’s difficult to even make out that horizon any more.
We humans are pretty dependent on the past to tell us what may be happening in the future. We evolved in an environment that — thanks to its stability — was reasonably predictable. In evolutionary survival terms, it was smart to hedge our bets on the future by glancing over our shoulders at the past. If a saber-toothed tiger was likely to eat you yesterday, the odds were very much in favor of it also wanting to eat you tomorrow.
But our ability to predict things gets thrown for a loop in the face of uncertainty like we’re currently processing. There are just too many variables forced into the equation for us to be able to rely on what has happened in the past. Both the number of variables and the range of variation pushes our prediction probability of error past the breaking point.
When it comes to planning for the future, we become functionally paralyzed and start living day to day, waiting for the proverbial “other shoe to drop.”
The bigger problem, however, is that when the world is going to hell in a hand basket, we don’t realize that the past is a poor foundation on which to build our future. Evolved habits die hard, and so we continue to use hindsight to try to move forward.
And by “we,” I mean everyone — most especially the leaders we elect and the experts we rely on to point us in the right direction. Many seem to think that a post-COVID world will snap back to be very much like a pre-COVID world.
And that, I’m afraid, may be the biggest problem. You’d think that when worrying about an uncertain future is above our pay grade, there would be someone wiser and smarter than us to rely on and save our collective asses. But if common folk tend to consistently bet on the past as a guide to our future, it’s been shown that people we think of as “experts” double down on that bet.
A famous study by Philip Tetlock showed just how excruciatingly awful experts were at predicting the future. He assembled a group of 284 experts and got them to make predictions about future events, including those that fell into their area of expertise. Across the board, he found their track record of being correct was only slightly ahead of a random coin toss or a troupe of chimpanzees throwing darts. The more famous the expert, the worse their track record.
Expertise is rooted in experience. Both words spring from the same root: The Latin experiri for “try.” Experience is gained in the past. For experts, their worth comes from their experience in one particular area, so they are highly unlikely to ignore it when predicting the future. They are like the hedgehog in Isiah Berlin’s famous essay "The Hedgehog and The Fox": They “know one important thing.”
But when it comes to predicting the future, Tetlock found it’s better to be a fox: to “know many little things.” In a complex, highly uncertain world, it’s the generalist who thrives.
The reason is pretty simple. In an uncertain world, we have to be more open to sense making in the classic cognitive sense. We have to be attuned to the signals that are playing out in real time and not be afraid to consider new information that may conflict with our current beliefs.
This is how generalists operate. It’s also how science is supposed to operate. Our view of the future should be no more than a hypothesis that we’re willing to have proven wrong. Hedgehogs dig in when their expertise about “one big thing” is questioned. Foxes use it as an opportunity to update their take on reality.
Foxes have another advantage over hedgehogs. They tend to be dilettantes, spreading their interest over a wide range of topics without diving too deeply into any of them. This keeps their network diverse and expansive, giving them the opportunity to synthesize their sense of reality from the broadest range of signals possible.
In a world that depends on being nimble enough to shift directions depending on the input your receive, this stacks the odds in favor of the fox.
Still, it’s against human nature to be so cavalier about our future. We like certainty. We crave predictability. We are big fans of transparent causes and effects. If those things are clouded by complexity and uncertainty, we start constructing our own narratives. Hence the current spike of conspiracy theories, as I noted previously. This is especially true when the stakes are as high as they are now.
I don’t blame those having a very hard time looking past COVID — or any other imminent disaster. But someone should be.
It’s time to start honing those fox instincts.