Joe Coscarelli, at NYMag, has a long interview with Nate Silver:
Can you explain the mythology behind the new fox logo?
The fox logo comes from a quote which was originally attributable to an obscure Greek poet: “The hedgehog knows one big thing and the fox knows many little things.” The idea being that we’re a lot of scrappy little nerds and we have different data-driven — I hate data-driven as a term — but data journalism takes on a lot of different forms for us. Often, yeah, it does mean numbers and statistics as applied to the news, but it also means data visualization, reporting on data that is both numerate and literate; down the road, it came mean investigative journalism. It can mean building models and forecasts and programs. At the same time, it’s still data journalism. It’s not enough just to be smart. There’s a particular series of methods and a way of looking at the world.
Plenty of pundits have really high IQs, but they don’t have any discipline in how they look at the world, and so it leads to a lot of bullshit, basically. We think about our philosophy for when we choose to run with a story or when we don’t. We talk about avoiding “smart takes,” quote-unquote. This is data journalism, capital-D. Within that, we take a foxlike approach to what data means. It’s not just numbers, but numbers are a big part of this. We think that’s a weakness of conventional journalism, that you have beautiful English language skills and fewer math skills, and we hope to rectify that balance a little bit.
So if you all are the foxes, who’s a hedgehog?
Uhhhh, you know … the op-ed columnists at the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal are probably the most hedgehoglike people. They don’t permit a lot of complexity in their thinking. They pull threads together from very weak evidence and draw grand conclusions based on them. They’re ironically very predictable from week to week. If you know the subject that Thomas Friedman or whatever is writing about, you don’t have to read the column. You can kind of auto-script it, basically…
Are there any notable exceptions out of the crop you just named?
There are some people I like more than others. I think Ross Douthat is someone who shows some originality. He seems to approach each topic freshly, where he has certain kind of semi-conservative views, but he doesn’t let this get in the way of thinking in an interesting way about a subject…
And therein, as I see it, we have the root and branch of Mr. Silver’s problems. The first time I remember reading the ‘fox & hedgehog’ analogy was in my second-grade reader, where it was presented as one of Aesop’s fables: A fox and a hedgehog are pursued by hounds; the hedgehog uses his ‘one trick’ to curl up in a spiky ball and survives; the fox, hesitating over which of his many, many clever feints would be optimally useful, is caught by the dogs and torn to pieces. (They didn’t bowdlerize violence in the educational texts, back then.) The fox knows many tricks, the hedgehog only one — but it’s a good one!
“Data nerds”, to use Silver’s term, aren’t even foxes — they’re obsessives who use their beloved numbers to predict outcomes. And
Doubthat Douthat doesn’t actually “approach each topic freshly”; he just uses a more consciously ‘literary’ (hipster) set of jargon-arguments to defend the same stale conservative truisms as Bill Keller or Tom Friedman. But it’s tragically easy for ‘hedgehogs’ to be dazzled by the apparent hipster worldliness of the ‘foxes’… and that leads to misguided attempts at click-baiting contrarianism that inevitably end badly.