What Harvard Gets Us

Views from the six on statistics, philosophy, and four years at Harvard

The Price of Everything

In his 1933 essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin famously claims that some writers and thinkers—the hedgehogs—saw the world in terms of a single, all-encompassing idea, while others—the foxes—drew upon an arsenal of disparate ideas, often unrelated and even antithetical, in order to make sense of the reality in which they live.

Berlin’s distinction was, in essence, one of model choice. Hedgehogs rely on a unitary model of reality, while foxes deftly use a variety of models to build their understanding of the world.

George Box, a statistician, wrote that “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” My own version of Box’s aphorism is this: All models are wrong, but almost all can be useful, to some degree, sometimes. Few ways of seeing reality are utterly useless. Foxes, as avid collectors of models, own an ever-growing Swiss Army knife of varying utility in different scenarios. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, are stuck with an intrinsically imperfect sledgehammer, and the inescapable conviction that everything looks like a nail.

Having access to a collection of models allows foxes to slip into the guise of any particular hedgehog when the moment calls. They leap to and from the shoulders of giants: not ideologically committed to Smith’s hammer or Marx’s mallet, but rather choosing the tool that can be most effectively applied at a particular time to understand a sprawling notion like capitalism. A sledgehammer may be powerful, but a hungry Swiss Army officer trying to open a can of beans has never been upset that there was a knife with a can opener in her pocket instead.

I like to think that Harvard has made us all more like foxes. I was fortunate over the last four years to have had close friends who believed in models of the world that were entirely distinct from mine. Early on, it was immensely difficult for me to even consider a view of the world in which people weren’t always rational and self-interested. But after hours and hours in the Mather dining hall debating and sometimes fighting, each of us would always leave, perhaps grudgingly, with yet another tool in our Swiss Army knives. These long and tiring nights will remain some of my most treasured memories at this place.

Becoming more fox-like is important because hedgehogs that view reality through different lenses can only ever talk past each other. As such, being a fox is, at its core, about being empathetic and humble in how we understand the world. The fox must not only take worldviews entirely unfamiliar to it as its own, but also be unafraid to draw upon them when they explain reality with more fidelity than the models it already prefers. We can only become the citizens and citizen-leaders of Harvard’s mission statement when we, like foxes, engage with rather than dismiss those who see things in ways completely novel to us.

The hedgehog’s lack of intellectual empathy and humility springs up again and again, right here at Harvard and more broadly in the world. It’s hard to imagine that the incredible complexity of our world can be completely distilled down to issues of race; however, it’s also hard to entirely deny the existence of social constructions that disproportionately disadvantage certain groups of people. Divestment is not simply a question of moral imperatives as its proponents often suggest, but it is also not necessarily a purely economic issue as its opponents might argue. Refusing to see anything but wealth inequality as the root of all of society’s problems is foolhardy, but refusing to admit that making the rich richer doesn’t always help the poor is equally as naïve. We ought to recognize that each of these models contains some hint of the truth, but to fully commit to any one of them—as a hedgehog might—is to hold a fundamentally incomplete view of reality.

This very column has taken a purposefully and obviously deficient view of the world, understanding love, Monopoly, and happiness only in terms of expected value, volatility, and utility functions. But I offer this narrow perspective only because I think it is a model of the world that is often missing from intellectual toolboxes. Navigating love, winning Monopoly, and finding happiness are some of the most important facets of the lives we lead, and to rely solely on intuition or the arts to do so is as futile as it is to rely solely on mathematics.

My fellow seniors and I will soon depart to serve our country and our kind in a world far more complex than any single model could possibly capture. We were fortunate enough to have spent four years in dining halls and classrooms surrounded by an incredible density of different models of reality. It is our responsibility now to be wary of imposing our favored models on the world, and to choose, from the arsenal of frameworks we’ve been so lucky to collect from our peers and our professors, the best models to fit the ever-changing contours of the different scientific, societal, and moral problems we will inevitably face. This imperative might just be, in the words of the Canadian philosopher Aubrey Graham, what Harvard gets us.


Marshall M. Zhang ’16 is a statistics and math joint-concentrator with a secondary field in philosophy in Mather House. His column usually appears on alternate Thursdays.

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