Nate Silver, Foxes & Hedgehogs

fox fivethirtyeight

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.

84 replies
  1. 1
    raven says:

    The Wedding of the Foxes in Kurosawa’s Dreams. Don’t look at them.

  2. 2
    dmsilev says:

    There are some people I like more than others. I think Ross Douthat is someone who shows some originality.

    Well, I suppose we can all admit that ‘chunky Reese Witherspoon’ once a certain amount of originality to its phraseology. Problem is, he’s spent the last several years revisiting the exact same “sex is icky” theme in great depth. Thorough, I suppose. Original thought, no not really.

  3. 3
  4. 4
    Baud says:

    Yawn. Wake me up when Nate hires a self-hating gay guy.

  5. 5
    raven says:

    @Baud: wrong thread

  6. 6
    Baud says:


    Just having a little fun at the outrage of the day.

  7. 7
    Morbo says:

    Can Nate Silver predict the result of the Crimea referendum?

  8. 8
    ruviana says:

    Thanks AL for providing the details of the fox/hedgehog story. I didn’t want Nate Sliver’s vile slur against hedgehogs to stand. (And I have no great hostility toward Nate).

  9. 9
    KG says:

    Knowing many tricks is better than knowing only one… If you can quickly determine what trick you are going to use. The benefit to knowing many tricks is that if one doesn’t work, you have others… If you only know one trick and it fails, you’re fucked. The problem is the fox couldn’t make a decision

  10. 10
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Morbo: No, but I am sure BobinPortland can.

  11. 11
    Suffern ACE says:

    Hmmm. I think Nate Silver’s Foxes need a them song. “My data makes me proud, lord don’t it makes me proud. It never makes a scene, or hangs over me in a crowd.”

  12. 12
    Keith G says:

    @raven: “Wrong, but related” thread.

    I guess nothing else is happening in the world today, save the missteps of lefty-ish bloggers. The navels are a be-in gazed.


    @Suffern ACE:

    I think Nate Silver’s Foxes need a them song.

    He has one already!

  13. 13
    jl says:


    My first, hopeful, thought was that Silver had not read, and was not thinking about Douthat’s sex columns.

    ‘ revisiting the exact same “sex is icky” theme in great depth ”

    I think Douthat’s theme is ” sex is a wonderful precious sacred sacrament given to us by God, but pretty much all that has come my way, or anything I can think about in terms of humans actually doing it, is all icky. And, funny thing, but that’s usually the chick’s fault. “

  14. 14
    raven says:

    @Keith G: I’m going to bed, fuck it.

  15. 15
    J.Ty says:

    @Keith G: silver left the leftyish camp a whole ago. Saw an interview where he self identified as “ethnically straight” and “somewhere between mitt romney and [whoever the libertarian party candidate was]”.

  16. 16
    kindness says:

    I think Douthat is shallow. He approaches any subject through 1) a conservative Catholic appraisal and 2) as a conservative columnist and then pronounces judgment in weasel-speak.

  17. 17
    catclub says:

    The problem with that fox versus hedgehog analogy is that you want someone to burrow into the data – like a hedgehog, while the people like David Brooks are extremely facile at coming up with something that sounds knowledgeable – kind of like a fox. The hedgehog aspect is wrong in that when you burrow into the data, you have to keep turning it over until it makes some kind of sense, so you have to find different ways to look at it – kind of like a fox and multiple tools.

    meanwhile, he is right that you can predict that David brooks will come up with same answer about just about any question – the GOP approach seems to be the most sensible and human. But he can come up with it whether the question is Syria and Iran, about which he knows very little, or Japan, or China, also things he does not have any deep knowledge of.

  18. 18
    scav says:

    Haven’t had a little internet boomlet like this in a short while. Putting a “.Com” after or an “e” in front of everything, then an “i” or blah blah blah. “Data” journalism boom magic stick! Wasn’t the Huffington et al. wave the last best thing that was going to save journalism and the news? Well, they don’t all have to be that dire, but I would rather like fast-forwarding through the breathless hype stage.

  19. 19
    dedc79 says:

    I think Ross Douthat is someone who shows some originality.

    That would seem to belong in Cole’s post below.

  20. 20

    Is Nate trolling us with Douthat? Douthat is original? In what Universe? All his columns come to the same conclusion, wimmens is icky.

  21. 21
    Suffern ACE says:

    @scav: yep. Big Data Journalism 3.0 up in the Cloud. There’s money in the cloud.

  22. 22
    Cacti says:


    Can Nate Silver predict the result of the Crimea referendum?

    Does he have Putin’s phone #?

  23. 23
    mclaren says:

    Personally, the notion of data-driven journalism appeals to me. Maybe someday America could try data-driven medicine?

    Or possibly even data-driven foreign policy? Or data-driven economics?

    Ahhhhhhhh…why bother? So much easier to just kill those terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight ’em over here, where soup kitchens created the Great Depression and if a baby has a viral ear infection, shoot her up with antibiotics because, you know, MEDICAL SCHOOL and shit.

    Fuck yeah, MURKA NUMBER ONE!

  24. 24
    Baud says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:

    People are strange when you’re a stranger
    Faces look ugly when you’re alone
    Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted
    Streets are uneven when you’re down

  25. 25
    Origuy says:

    @efgoldman: The only question there is whether Putin will wait until the referendum to invade the rest of Ukraine.

  26. 26
    mclaren says:


    I think Ross Douthat is someone who shows some originality.

    I do not think that word means what you think it means, Nate.

  27. 27
    glaukopis says:

    the Greek poet who was the source of the line was Archilochus – 7th C BC – a little before Aesop, but it may well have been proverbial at the time.

  28. 28
    Omnes Omnibus says:


    Well, show me the way
    To the next whiskey bar
    Oh, don’t ask why
    Oh, don’t ask why

  29. 29
    Anne Laurie says:

    @raven: You may know this already, but foxes in Japanese folktales play the same role as seals to the Celts or swans to the Russians. Young men who run after pretty maidens of unknown background come to trouble when they discover their new brides are actually shape-shifting foxes (who, once discovered, disappear… along with their children… leaving the befuddled fellows broken-hearted). Some of the oldest stories out there, apparently: Don’t screw around with strangers, you’ll end up with an animal wife! But who isn’t enchanted by a little strange?

  30. 30
    J.Ty says:

    @Anne Laurie: And the Irish Selkie!

    Highly recommend Borges’s “Book of Imaginary Beings” as a resource on such matters that’s also fun to read btw.

  31. 31
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Anne Laurie: OHMYGOD!!!! Santorum was right! Man on dog is next! Aaaaiiieeee!

  32. 32
    NotMax says:

    Have found that not relying on any wild animal’s instincts as a template for producing work to be quite effective.

  33. 33
    kindness says:

    @Anne Laurie:

    But who isn’t enchanted by a little strange?

    Yes but I can’t ever say that to my wife.

  34. 34
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Santorum, as he would be the first to tell you, is all about traditionalism.

    Marry the opposite-sex age-appropriate individual next door, start pumping out replacement units “as god wills”. Anything more creative, you’re just looking for trouble, you deviant.

  35. 35
    Cassidy says:

    @Baud: Were we supposed to be outraged? I only noticed the displeasure that St. Greenwald wasn’t appropriately fellated by all.

  36. 36
    Belafon says:

    The fox kind of makes sense: Nate would have to consult the probabilities before he made a decision.

  37. 37
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Anne Laurie: Should we tell him about the Greeks and Romans? Petronius would probably kill him.

  38. 38
    cokane says:

    Dunno why ppl are hating on Silver or data-journalism in general here. Pretty weak sauce imo. I don’t agree with his Douthat comment, but otherwise the dude has been a solid political reporter since 2008.

  39. 39
    Baud says:


    Aren’t we always supposed to be outraged?

    Anything less would be an outrage.

  40. 40
    NotMax says:

    @Anne Laurie

    (who, once discovered, disappear… along with their children… leaving the befuddled fellows broken-hearted)

    One interpretation.

    (who, once discovered, disappear… along with their children… leaving the befuddled fellows free to play the field again, unencumbered by responsibilities)

    is another.

  41. 41
    Baud says:


    Dunno why ppl are hating on Silver or data-journalism in general here.

    We’re assholes.

  42. 42
    scav says:

    @Suffern ACE: Medicine will soon follow — Big Stethoscope Medicine! Fire Depts will reorganize around the radical concept of using water (H20.2) It apparently amuses them to rediscover things, or to stage a parade when they integrate new skills: remember the ticker tape parades when they adopted typewriter journalism?

  43. 43
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Baud: I’m just making Santorum jokes; how does that make me an asshole? Never mind, I’ll do my part in a bit.

  44. 44
    Anne Laurie says:

    @NotMax: Dunno. As a small child, I used to collect these cross-cultural animal-wife tales, but the universal emphasis on she took his children! his property! seriously confused me until I was old enough to understand the economics. I get the feeling the reason they’re so widespread is that the ‘peasant wisdom’ behind them is that marriage is best kept within the immediate social group, because otherwise your ‘fruit’ (offspring) may end up contributing to some other tribe/village, which is socially wasteful.

  45. 45
    Baud says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    Glad you can pitch in. It takes a village.

  46. 46
    willard says:

    Eh. Sam Wang is better

  47. 47
  48. 48
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    If Silver thinks that Douchehat is admirable in any way, then Silver is a twit, and deserves whatever ill fate awaits his new venture.

  49. 49
    David in NY says:

    Cripes, I would have taken Nate as a hedgehog any day — look at what the numbers tell you, curl up, don’t get distracted, and don’t forget what the numbers said. That was Nate’s strategy, he mostly kept to it, and it made him famous. Don’t fuck it up, Nate!!!

    ETA: Surprised nobody else said something like this. Really, Nate shows a lack of self-knowledge here — maybe he really wants to be David Brooks, but he certainly should not.

  50. 50
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    Where is the stuff about Megan Fox and Ron Jeremy?

  51. 51

    @Anne Laurie:

    Good thing I didn’t do that — the boy next door ended up sleeping with one of his students where he was teaching high school. I think he’s out on parole now.

    (Sadly, not joking, either.)

  52. 52
    Villago Delenda Est says:


    Does he have Putin’s phone #?


  53. 53
    J.Ty says:

    @willard: and all he does is average things! Silver’s highfalutin’ secret Bayesian code isn’t much of a value add (much to the chagrin of machine learning folks everywhere)…

  54. 54

    Also, I’m 99 percent sure at least one of you jackholes linked to that stupid “What Does The Fox Say?” song, but luckily I can’t follow links from the iPhone.

  55. 55
    Baud says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    Putin seems more like a “How’s My Driving? Call 1-800-EAT-SHIT” kind of guy.

  56. 56
    hells littlest angel says:

    Drunk Nate Silver sounds like pretty much any other drunk.

  57. 57
    Gin & Tonic says:

    OT, but in case anyone is interested, here’s a talk and Q&A by Ukrainian Acting PM Arseniy Yatseniuk at the Atlantic Council in DC yesterday. Yes, he speaks English. I’m sure that proves he’s a CIA stooge or something.

  58. 58
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Baud: 606-0842?

  59. 59
    Anne Laurie says:

    @J.Ty: One could probably do a whole riff, from Silver’s comments, on “All hedgehogs secretly wish they were (glamorous, smart) foxes”

  60. 60
    catclub says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Also, Silver Foxes

    and the Saturday Night Live Steve Martin skit “… foxes”

  61. 61
    David in NY says:

    @Anne Laurie: @J.Ty: Well, I guess this all agrees with my view that Nate is really a hedgehog. Just giving credit.

    See @David in NY:

  62. 62
    Baud says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    You and DougJ need to have a song-off one day.

  63. 63
    jayackroyd says:

    Man, is this guy a Bill James’ disciple. Me too! This could be very interesting.

    I read James when I was studying stat theory. It helped a lot. NOT because of the numbers he used, but his attitude toward truth-seeking. Statistics is about constructing tools that keep you from fooling yourself. Nate’s got the same perspective.

  64. 64
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Baud: Too much overlap on the Clash/Costello post-punk front.

  65. 65
    J.Ty says:

    @David in NY: Sam Wang is the one who just averages polls and has a consistently more accurate model, as well as open code. Silver does some weird secret thing with too many factors that doesn’t work as well and takes forever to run.

  66. 66
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Baud: Fair point.

  67. 67
    Keith G says:

    @Mnemosyne (iPhone): I did.

    And I assume you referred to me as a jackhole only because you like me, right now, you like me!

  68. 68
    NotMax says:

    Hmm. Floris Voorveld may have a case.

  69. 69
    Bill Murray says:


    Or data-driven economics?

    we did that, it’s just that the data was all from models with little anchoring in reality

  70. 70
    David in NY says:

    @J.Ty: Sorry, I realized you were making that point only after edit was gone. But I think on the fox-hedgehog continuum, both are entirely hedgehogs — get your method, even if there’s a little algorithmic special sauce, and stick with it. And that’s it. Curl up and you’re safe.

  71. 71
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Keith G: Anyway, it’s more like this.

  72. 72
    Morbo says:

    @Origuy: Indeed, rerouting Russian air travel around the country, putting 80000 troops on the border for “drills” and blacking out the independent media all point in a dire direction.

  73. 73
    max says:

    @Morbo: Indeed, rerouting Russian air travel around the country, […] and blacking out the independent media all point in a dire direction.

    Those indicate the Russian Federation have gone to a war footing, yes.

    putting 80000 troops on the border for “drills”

    I heard 200k. And a couple of hundred tanks. Which indicates Putin isn’t planning to roll a serious advance, or someone’s intelligence is way off in the too small direction.

    Of course, if he’s going for another ‘silent invasion’ those numbers might be fine.

    [‘Even the liberal New Republic informs me the Germans are worrying about WWI, while the Americans are worried about Munich. It seems to have occurred to no one that the Russian freak out about Summer ’42. (Or Spring 1918, or Summer of ’41.’]

  74. 74
    Steeplejack says:

    @Mnemosyne (iPhone):

    You’re not wrong. I clicked in a moment of inattention.

  75. 75
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Steeplejack: Until tonight, I do not believe I was aware of that song. My life has been diminished by my knowledge.

    Weirdly. I have heard foxes in the wild so the song is particularly stupid to me.

  76. 76
    Suffern ACE says:

    @max: The good news is that no matter what Russia does, more righteous souls than I can shout “Blowback”, point at the US and feel confident that the US had it coming.

  77. 77
    jomike says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: Word. I bet the creators of the Friedman Column Generator could crank out a baby Bobo version in a couple hours. Half day, tops.

  78. 78
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @max: Summer of ’14 is coming up.

  79. 79
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    Yes, but have you seen them playing on a trampoline in suburbia?

  80. 80
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Mnemosyne: Hey, I didn’t post the stupid song….

  81. 81
    ET says:

    I thought they chose the fox based on the “The Hedgehog and the Fox” essay by Isaiah Berlin which does look at the one big thing v. lots of little things but not as much to the Fable.

  82. 82
    Someguy says:

    That Silver doesn’t recognize Douthat as History’s Greatest Monster clearly shows major flaws in his intellect.

  83. 83
    JMS says:

    Nate’s become so cautious since he’s gone into the big time media. I suppose he doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed, but I sort of miss the good old days when he was just another commenter with a silly name on dKos and he was quite open in his leftyish leanings we used give each others’ comments 4s. It’s the price of fame and fortune, I guess.

  84. 84

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