Something similar, I think, happens with blogging. Bloggers tend to be foxes, rather than hedgehogs; it’s pretty clear that Athreya is an archetypal hedgehog and has a deep-seated mistrust of foxes. We skip around a lot of different things, and much of the time we don’t really understand them. But somehow the accumulated effect of all that skipping around is to make connections and develop understandings which hedgehogs often lack. What’s more, we live, as Athreya admits, in a highly complex world — one which there are serious limits to what economics can do on its own.
So I’ll continue to have a healthy skepticism when it comes to everything I read, whether it comes from people with deep immersion in economics PhD programs or whether it comes from an anonymous blog. But most of the smart and relevant insights I find will come from bloggers: they might not fully grok the mathematical underpinnings of the economics that they’re talking about, but they are useful and thought-provoking and germane in a way that economists often are not. And by dint of sheer velocity, they achieve a very modern kind of knowledge — one very well suited to the blogging platform. Maybe that’s what I learned in those mathematics classes — the ability to synthesize bits of information that I’d picked up in the prior weeks and months. It turns out to be quite a handy skill.
This isn’t to say that hedgehogs are irrelevant or unnecessary–quite the contrary. Rather, it is a defense of the polymath, of the synthesizer. It isn’t always the subject-matter expert that comes up with the most cutting insight, particularly when it comes to policy and actionable recommendations. Whether in business or politics, practitioners encounter a great deal of ‘friction’ that is necessarily left out of most academic theorizing and analysis. The application of these theories requires as much art as science. And one’s artistic skill is aided by having a broad knowledge base to pull from. Foxes can see the forest for the trees much better than hedgehogs, allowing them to consider possible outcomes, roadblocks, and unique combinations of policies.