THR Web Features   /   March 20, 2014

In Defense of the Misunderstood Hedgehog

Brianne Alcala

While we welcome the arrival this week of Nate Silver's new 538 blog, and in fact, defend his focus on "data journalism" here on our sister blog The Infernal Machine, it is our 21st-century age-of-the-brand duty to come to the defense of our namesake, the hedgehog, recently maligned.

To catch you up, the 538 blog has adopted the fox as its mascot, drawn from the same Archilochus quotation that runs in the front of every Hedgehog Review issue:

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

Silver explains why the fox mentality appealed, expanding the notion of "many things" to "many different forms of data journalism." (The fact that the fox is trendy and cute can't hurt.)

As to where the fox's nemesis, the hedgehog, comes out in all of this, New York Magazine has already inquired. Silver's response:

So if you all are the foxes, who’s a hedgehog? 

Uhhhh, you know … the op-ed columnists at the New York Times, WashingtonPost, 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.

It’s people who have very strong ideological priors, is the fancy way to put it, that are governing their thinking. They’re not really evaluating the data as it comes in, not doing a lot of [original] thinking. They’re just spitting out the same column every week and using a different subject matter to do the same thing over and over.

Our humble hedgehog is not easily offended. It even agrees that this definition loosely and somewhat carelessly follows the intellectual typology laid out by Isaiah Berlin in his important essay, "The Hedgehog and the Fox."  (Others have also pondered the origins of the fox and hedgehog.) Still, our editors have in mind quite different understandings of the hedgehog when they set about their work. In the past, in fact, each issue tackled one theme, exploring a single topic of broad cultural significance from a variety of angles. While in more recent times we have added a number of non-thematic essays,  the subject of cultural change is still our "one big thing."

We will go further and admit we share something more substantial with other philosophical hedgehogs, something quite out of step with fashionable postmodern attitudes.  That is, we believe in the truth—and, even more, that pursuing it is essential to the pursuit of the good.

If we and our contributors can take up the hunt with the nimbleness of foxes, so much the better. And while we imagine that our hedgehog is not even on the radar of the new fox on the block, we suspect we two have more in common than a philosophical Greek might have thought.