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In workshops I’ve been involved in a warm up exercise is often to name an animal that symbolises what foresight or environmental scanning is. Common responses are giraffe, meerkat, dog and eagle (or vulture for those with more melancholic tendencies).

These animals evoke being vigilant or able to see further or more clearly. (Poor old Ariadne’s cousins rarely get mentioned.) However, this is only part of the skill set for being an effective ‘futurist’. You have to also make sense of what you are seeing. Other animals in the futurist’s zoo can symbolise this talent.

Kylie Sven Opossum [Facebook link — you may not be able to get to this at your day job] from the filmFantastic Mr Fox isn’t one of them. He is, though, a good illustration of responses not infrequently encountered in futures workshops.

Philip Tetlock (a psychologist not a futurist) proposed in 2005 that your future’s totem may be either a fox or a hedgehog.  This drew on the philosopher and essayist Isaiah Berlin’s resurrection of an ancient Greek observation that ‘the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’. Hedgehog thinkers fit information into their view of the world. Foxy futurists lack a single organising principle, but they do need to have some views or hypotheses to test the information against. I’m definitely a Berlinian fox.

Tetlock, and more recently Dan Gardner, consider foxes are better forecasters than hedgehogs. This is because foxes are not looking to fit information to one grand theory as a hedgehog would, but can change their ideas based on the information they gather. Hedgehogs make good pundits. They seek to minimise uncertainty and so can be reassuring (at least if your view of the world is similar to their’s), even if they aren’t accurate.

However, both Tetlock and Gardner conclude that predictions made by experts are usually no more accurate, and sometimes much less so, than a well read non-expert. Or a chimp throwing darts. This is because too much knowledge or information can make it easier to miss the significant details. As I noted in my first post, foresight isn’t just about making predictions, so Tetlock & Gardner’s analyses don’t damn all foresight activities.

A favourite futures paper of mine comes from the CIA. Chapter 5 of the Psychology of Intelligence Analysis (1999 — mysteriously no longer accessible on the CIA’s public website) gives examples of where having more information doesn’t improve accuracy of assessments, it just improves the confidence we have in our conclusions. As I commented in my iBrain post, analysing any and all information is unlikely to be helpful. Good foresight, like good science, usually requires you to have some hypotheses to enable you to determine what information is likely to be of most relevance.

One more critter that can be a useful metaphor for aspiring futurists; the fly. This covers the third aspect of futures methodology — action. The fly doesn’t wait for the brain to form a unified image from the many facets of its eye before responding. If a few facets detect something rapidly approaching the fly will usually take immediate evasive action rather than wait for more information to confirm the object is a rolled up newspaper. I’ll write more about what has resulted from foresight activities in a later posting.

Additional reading

Ronald Bailey has a short synopsis of Dan Gardner’s book Future Babble in the July issue of Reason.

A 2005 article in the New Yorker discusses Philip Tetlock’s study of expert political judgement.