I picked up Nate Silver’s recent book, “The Signal and the Noise,” over the holidays, for a couple of reasons. One, his predictions for the 2012 election cycle were uncannily accurate, repeating his performance of four years ago. And two, sorting through the random noise all around us to find the signals that truly matter is central to who we are at mBLAST. As a voice with off-the-charts relevance, authority and influence, I had to know more about how Nate Silver approaches data analysis.
One of the things Silver helped me better understand is an issue that’s perplexed us as we’ve engaged with some customers. When we first rolled out mPACT, our social media listening and analysis tool, one of our key markets was the public relations and marketing community – since a strength of our solution is its ability to monitor voices not only in the social web, but also in traditional news outlets, across a wide range of industries and vertical markets.
But sometimes when we shared our analysis of the leading voices on a particular topic with PR folks, they pushed back, hard, because they didn’t always see the usual suspects — the reporters they knew to be the most influential — at the top of our list.
When we got that reaction, we often chalked it up to journalistic skepticism, or maybe even a generational thing. But as Silver points out, this is a well-known problem: being an expert can make it more difficult to accept data that doesn’t fit your hard-earned view of the world. It can even cause you to ignore or dismiss earth-shattering developments in your field of expertise.
To illustrate the point, Silver cites the research of Philip Tetlock, a psychology professor who was perplexed that so many experts completely missed the fall of the Soviet Union. Tetlock surveyed dozens of experts and found they fit into one of two categories, which he called “hedgehogs” and “foxes” — based on a line from Greek poetry: “The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
Tetlock showed that hedgehogs, who often spend their lives studying a single topic, are predisposed to view the opinions of outsiders skeptically – fared far worse in their predictions than foxes, who are more open to new ideas and observations, and are more tolerant of uncertainty and complexity.
So I guess it’s not surprising that a few PR experts were skeptical of our analysis. For a long time, they were the arbiters of media influence, recommending how and with whom companies should engage to build awareness and credibility, based on their personal experience, relationships and gut feel.
But there’s no denying it’s a data-driven world today. Or that the social media revolution has already broken down the Berlin Wall between companies and their customers.
All organizations now have the opportunity to discover, analyze and engage directly with the voices that matter most to them.
The challenge to doing this, as Silver points out, is that it requires dispensing with our biases and thinking like Tetler’s foxes, because “they are quicker to recognize how noisy the data can be and they are less inclined to chase false signals.”
So are you a hedgehog or a fox?No Comment